Israel is the smallest nation in the world to design and build its own tanks. This was the result of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which took Israel by surprise and inflicted heavy losses before Israel counter-attacked and defeated Egypt and Syria and their larger number of modern Russian tanks. Israel carefully analyzes the results of each war it fights and makes changes to deal with problems encountered. The 1973 war prompted Israel to start designing and building its own tanks.
By 1979 the 61-ton Merkava entered service and 250 were built by 1983. That was the year the first of 580 62-ton Merkava 2s entered service. Production of Merkava 2 ended in 1989. The first two Merkava models were similar in design with both using a 105mm gun. The Merkava 2 had additional armor, a five percent more powerful 950 HP engine and a 20 percent higher top speed of 55 kilometers an hour. The external 60mm mortar, mainly for firing smoke shells, was moved inside for the Merkava 2. There were a lot of other mechanical and electronic upgrades. By 1989 all the active-duty armored brigades had Merkavas and many of the reserve armored brigades as well.
Using lessons learned from the 1982 fighting in Lebanon, Israel developed a much improved 63.5-ton Merkava 3, which entered service in 1990. By 2002 680 Merkava 3s were built. The main improvements in Merkava were a 120mm main gun and much more powerful 1,200 HP engine that produced a 60-kilometers an hour top speed, faster acceleration and a more maneuverable and nimbler tank. All the armor was of a modern composite design. Fewer main gun shells could be carried; 46 120mm ones compared to 60 105mm shells in the Merkava 2. Merkava 3 could load shells faster because of a five-round mechanical drum. The fire-control system was also upgraded, as were many other components. The Merkava 3 is still used, mainly by reserve armor brigades.
In 2003 the current model, the 65-ton Merkava 4 was introduced. So far 360 of these have been produced and most have already undergone several major upgrades. Merkava 4 has improved armor, a 25 percent more powerful 1,500 HP engine and a top speed of 65 kilometers an hour. Merkava 4 is even more nimble and maneuverable than Merkava 3. Merkava 4 carries 48 rounds of 120mm shells and uses a 10-round electric powered drum for quick loading. Merkava has a smoother ride because of an improved suspension system. There are also improved protection for the crew against mines and roadside bombs. So far 550 Merkava 4s have been built.
All Merkavas feature a unique design feature; the engine is in the front. This adds more protection for the four-man crew and any passengers in the large rear compartment. That compartment can hold more 120mm shells or other supplies or up to eight passengers. Usually six infantrymen are carried, providing Merkava with its own infantry support. This is especially useful in built-up areas.
Merkava 4 has undergone several major upgrades. In 2012 Israel completed equipping all the Merkava tanks in an armor brigade with the Trophy APS (Active Protection System). In 2010 the first battalion of Merkavas was so equipped. In 2011 Trophy defeated incoming missiles and rockets in combat for the first time. This included ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missile), possibly a modern Russian system like the Kornet E. This ATGM was introduced in 1994, and has been sold to Syria, who apparently passed them on to Hezbollah and Hamas. A few weeks before the ATGM intercept, Trophy defeated an RPG warhead, an unguided rocket propelled grenade fired from a metal tube balanced on the shoulder. As it was designed to do, Trophy operated automatically and the crew didn't realize the incoming RPG warhead or missile had been stopped until after it was over. That is how APS is supposed to work.
In 2017, a ground vehicle VR (Virtual Reality) system called Iron Vision was introduced and Merkava 4 was the first tank to get it. Iron Vision meant a tank could largely dispense with the traditional dependence on the tank commander spending a lot of time with his head sticking out of the turret to get a better view of the situation. The VR helmet display worn by crew does not just show real-time video of what is outside but also an overlay of other information or even a map. Israel pioneered the development and use of these helmets and the F-35 stealth fighter was designed to use such a helmet. Most modern tanks are equipped with these small external digital vidcams but Iron Vision makes the external cameras much easier to use.
In 2020 Fire Weaver fire control network software was first installed in Israeli tanks and will soon be installed in warplanes, artillery and other armored vehicles. In 2021 at least two of the four active-duty armored brigades will have Fire Weaver. Once all the active-duty armor brigades have it, the six active-duty infantry brigades will receive it. Some of the 22 reserve brigades, nine of them armored, may get the system as well.
Fire Weaver takes data from existing sensors on tanks and other armored vehicles as well as artillery and warplanes and rapidly (within five seconds) lets vehicles, warplanes and artillery know which available target each combat system should fire at. This eliminates a common battlefield situation where too many weapons fire on some targets while other targets are not initially fired on at all. Currently, tank crews and artillery spotters (troops who call back to tell artillery which targets to hit) have manual procedures for picking which targets they should fire at. That often works quite well, especially during a situation where a tank unit encountering the enemy has an opportunity to fire first. Fire Weaver automates these decisions and makes more effective choices more quickly. The troops and pilots can override the Fire Weaver selected target but tests have shown that Fire Weaver is usually quite effective in selecting the best targets for each tank, artillery unit or aircraft.
Fire Weaver is easy to implement in the Israeli military because the Israelis have already been providing their troops with better sensors and battlefield networks. For example, in mid-2019 three Israeli firms, responding to an IDF proposal, showed off their versions of the proposed Carmel Concept for future armored vehicles. Three different armored vehicles; the Merkava 4 tank, Namer IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle) and the Eitan 8x8 APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) had proposed versions of Carmel installed. Carmel involves several existing technologies plus proposed new ones that would turn an armored vehicle into a “combat system” that would operate with, a crew of two or a robotic vehicle operated remotely (like a UAV) or autonomously, to benefit from more information about where friendly and suspected enemy forces were. This information would often be delivered in real-time. This sort of thing provides a tremendous advantage in combat.
The best example of similar (to Carmel) existing tech is used in the F-35 where numerous sensor and communications systems are controlled by software that uses data fusion. This is merging data from many sources and presenting it to the pilot in a comprehensible fashion to provide the F-35 pilot with unprecedented “situational awareness”. That means an accurate picture of where the pilot and everything else in the vicinity is. It had long been known that superior situational awareness was the key to victory in combat be it in the air, at sea or on land. Carmel proposes that manufacturers find ways to effectively combine existing tech with improved software. This would include more AI (Artificial Intelligence) to analyze sensor and situational data at high speed and either act autonomously (as ADS, or Active Defense Systems, do) or present options to the vehicle operators.
Although the Merkava was introduced in 1979 it wasn’t until mid-2006 that Israeli tanks saw their first heavy combat in 24 years. It was also the first combat for the then new Merkava 4. Actually, it was the first heavy combat for the Merkava 2 (introduced in 1983) and Merkava 3 (1989). In 1982, 180 Merkava 1s saw action during the war with Lebanon. Until 2006 Merkavas had only been used in peacekeeping and counter-terror operations with the Palestinians.
The Israelis, as they have in all past wars, collected detailed information on each tank that was hit by enemy fire. Israel won't, for obvious reasons, release all this information. But they have provided some data. "Several hundred" Merkavas sent into southern Lebanon in 2006. Of those, ten percent were hit by enemy fire, including mines and roadside bombs. Merkava faced modern ATGMs for the first time in 2006. Only 18 tanks were seriously damaged, and only a third of those were from several hundred ATGMs fired by Hezbollah. Only two of the 18 heavily damaged tanks were destroyed, and both of those were damaged by roadside bombs. In those two cases, the tank was over the bomb when it was detonated.
The experience in Lebanon again proved that ATGMs tend to be overrated. Israel first encountered ATGMs during the 1973 war, and quickly adapted. ATGMs were much less effective in the 1982 war, and didn't do all that well in 2006 either. The Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah quickly learned that the Merkava frontal armor was impervious to their Kornet ATGMs. Getting side and rear shots was more difficult, and not a lot more successful. While the ATGM warhead often penetrated, the Merkava was designed to take this kind of hits and survive, and survive it did. In addition to fire extinguisher systems, the ammo and fuel are stored in such a way that secondary explosions are rare. The crew normally survives these hits, as does the tank.
One of the biggest problems with Israeli tanks in Lebanon had to do with the crews. Because of the heavy use of Israeli troops in counter-terror operations since 2000, most tank crews have spent a lot of time without their tanks, serving as security troops (light infantry). The lack of training in their tanks reduced the effectiveness of the Merkavas in Lebanon. This was not a critical factor, but it annoyed the tank crews quite a lot.
The tankers were also peeved at the lack of protective devices, like smoke grenades on some tanks, or active defense systems, like the Trophy. This was because so much money was diverted to counter-terror operations. While only six tanks were destroyed in Lebanon, over a hundred tank crewmen were killed or wounded by ATGMs. Hezbollah would often use a missile just to get the vehicle commander, who often was standing up, with his head and chest out of the turret hatch to get a better look at what's going on. Tank commanders would like to see some money spent on sensor systems (cameras) that enable the tank commander to get a good look around the tank, from inside the tank. The Lebanon operation was a wakeup call for the Israeli government, to stop shortchanging efforts to improve their tanks.
As good as the Merkava is, there not a lot of export customers. There is apparently only one export customer and Israel did not reveal who it was and no other public information about a foreign user has appeared so far. One difficulty with export orders is that Israel builds the Merkava itself and cannot afford large production facilities. Moreover, many key components come from the United States, which gives the Americans a veto power over who exports go to. Merkava is also is very expensive, with the most modern Merkava 4 costing over $5 million each.
Israel cannot afford to keep all its Merkava in service. Currently 220 of 550 Merkava 4s are in storage, while only 160 of 730 Merkava 3s are in use, the rest in storage. There are still 370 Merkava 2s available, but all are in storage. If there is a major war, the stored Merkavas can be ready for combat in a few days, or less. These storage tanks would be used to replace tanks out of action for combat or non-combat reasons. Because the Merkava is designed to reduced crew casualties, most of the crews of damaged or destroyed tanks are available for duty within hours. While storage tanks don’t get many of the upgrades, the basic controls of Merkava were kept the same or similar from one model to another to make it easy for crewmen who started out in a Merkava 4 could operate in a Merkava taken out of storage.