The Israeli Armoured Corps had five options open to it in the early 1970s. Firstly, they could acquire large numbers of ageing M48 Patton tanks and upgrade them with a 105mm rifled gun (based on the British L7) and overhaul the engines (724,000 Israeli Lira). Secondly, they could refit the Pattons with a new engine and install an experimental 110mm main gun and advanced NBC system. They could purchase large numbers of either the American M60 Patton tank (822,000) or the British Chieftain (1,188,000) or design, develop and build an indigenous tank, the Merkava, at some 906,000 Israeli Lira. The programme to produce the Merkava began under the direction of Major General Yisrael 'Talik' Tal and was given urgency by the heavy casualties Israel suffered during the 1973 War. The need to rebuild the Israeli Armoured Corps was desperate, so much so in fact, that Israel adopted a duel policy of working on its indigenous programme while accepting and upgrading equipment from foreign suppliers (mainly the United States). This upgrading took many forms including the addition of a new armour, Blazer reactive armour, which exploded when hit to deteriorate the effectiveness of infantry launched anti-tank weapons and adding machine guns to deal with the anti-tank teams. The focus of the Merkava design project was to maximise crew protection, if necessary, at the expense of firepower and mobility. It would have to be big enough to accommodate the four-man crew for extended periods of time and absorb a lot of punishment.
Tal used the lessons drawn from the Yom Kippur War to draft a design on what the new tank should be like, with every part playing a role in the protection of the crew. Tal visited friendly Western nations viewing tanks such as the British Chieftain, French AMX-30, German Leopard and American XM-1. He even managed to have a glimpse of the latest Soviet tank (at that time) the T-72. All were impressive, but designed with regard to the relatively flat and open country (compared to Israel's north and east border areas that varied from mountainous at worse to hilly at best) of the North German Plain where NATO and the Warsaw Pact were expected to slug it out. The Israeli tank had to be a desert warrior too (to the west was the desert of the Sinai). Contracts went out to the Israeli defence industry for the design and manufacture of the component sub-systems and gradually an MBT took shape that was of a unique design. Finally, in May 1979 on Israel's 31st anniversary, the Merkava Mk 1 was unveiled with many of the assembled military attachés being taken aback by its low and sloped design. The total cost of research, development and production of the early prototypes amounted to some $65 million. The first production tanks were delivered to the 7th Armoured Brigade led by Colonel Avigdor Kahalani. The Merkava first saw action in the June 1982 invasion of southern Lebanon, codenamed Operation Peace for Galilee and afforded its crews significant advantages in protection over the Centurions and M60s. Only seven Merkavas were destroyed and a number damaged and the percentage of tank crews killed was far lower in Merkava equipped units. Tal's vision had paid dividends.
The Merkava Mk 1 has a hull of cast and welded armour that is actually spaced and the space filled diesel fuel to give protection against HEAT warheads. The layout of the tank is unconventional with the turret and fighting compartment to the rear of the hull. The driver is seated to the left with the engine on his right side and has a one-piece hatch cover with three day periscopes, the centre on of which can be replaced by a passive one for driving at night. The engine is a Teledyne Continental AVDS-1790-6A V-12 diesel engine (900hp) coupled to a General Motors CD-850-6BX transmission. Both the engine and transmission are similar to that used on the M60 and M60A1 MBTs. The engine can be replaced under field conditions in about sixty minutes. The turret is wedge-shaped, and can accept either the 105mm rifled gun or the Israel Military Industries (IMI) 120mm gun. It has a small cross-section but large overhang at the back. The commander is seated on the right and has a hatch with five day periscopes in it as well as a roof-mounted sight that can traverse 360 degrees and has a zoom magnification of x 4 to x 20. The gunner is seated in front of and below the commander and has a periscope with x 1 and x 8 magnification and incorporates a laser rangefinder. The loader sits on the left of the turret.
There are three hatch covers at the back of the vehicle. The left one gives access to the batteries while the right one gives access to the NBC system. The centre one is a two-piece door through which ammunition, supplies or people can move. A sixty-litre water tank is provided above the rear hatch. The rear compartment can be used to store ammunition, spares, act as a command post or troops. An infantry telephone is mounted on the left side towards the rear of the hull and many Merkavas have been fitted with closely spaced chains with ball ends to detonate HEAT warheads before they hit the turret ring. The Merkava has six rubber-tyred road wheels on each side, drive sprocket at the front, idler at the rear and four track return rollers. A 1Kw searchlight is mounted under the bustle vertically at the back of the loader's position and is controlled by the commander. The Merkava has an NBC system and a Spectronix explosion suppression system (which was not originally fitted but is now on all new production vehicles and is being backfitted). Main armament on the Mk 1 was the 105mm M68 rifled gun (based on the British L7 gun) with 62 rounds of ammunition which all comes in special containers. A 7.62mm machine gun is mounted coaxially (with 2,000 rounds) and another is fitted to both the commander's and loader's stations. They are 7.62mm MAG machine guns, built under license from FN Herstal. Some Merkava's have been fitted with a 0.5in M2HB machine gun. A 60mm Soltam Commando mortar is carried as well (with 30 bombs).
The Merkava has a digital fire control system made by Elbit Computers Ltd of Haifa called the Matador Mk 1. The system has links from the commander, loader and gunner and has a number of automatic sensors, laser rangefinder, turret cant angle indicator and target angular velocity sensor. Optional sensors that can be installed include crosswind velocity, charge temperature, barrel bend and ambient air density. Manual operation is included if the electrics fail. The main armament is stabilised in both planes. Variants include the Mk 2 and Mk 3. The Mk 2 entered production in 1982 and has a number of improvements over the Mk 1 including special armour on the turret sides and front, as well as the hull front, the 60mm mortar can be fired and loaded from the inside of the tank, the steel skirts that protect the suspension have had special armour added to them, the fire control system has been upgraded (Matador Mk 2) including a Nd:YAG laser rangefinder and improved computer and a new Israeli designed transmission which increased range by 25 percent. The Merkava Mk 3 entered service in 1989 and featured a large-scale redesign of many components rather than a simple improvement. The hull was lengthened by 457mm and had greater fuel storage capacity. The turret was lengthened by 230mm with the armour array designed to be modular (Mk 3 BAZ) and be capable of being upgraded in the future. The Merkava Mk 3 features a 120mm smoothbore gun, similar to that on the US M1A1, M1A2 and German Leopard II MBTs with a total of 48 rounds of ammunition. A 7.62mm machine gun is mounted coaxially with another two on the roof that come with 10,000 rounds of ammunition. The IMI CL-3030 instantaneous self-screening system for AFVs is mounted either side of the turret. Turret controls are now all electric. The commander has a panoramic sight with x 4 and x 14 magnification with an optical relay to the gunner's sight. This has a two axis stabilised day/night sight with a magnification of x 5 (thermal) and x 12 (day). The fire control system (Elbit Knight Mk 3) is integrated with the turret and gun-control equipment and allows line of sight stabilisation. An advanced threat warning system by Amcoram has been fitted. The suspension now consists of twelve road wheels independently mounted on trailing arms and sprung by a pair of concentric coil springs. The engine has been upgraded to a Teledyne Continental (now part of General Dynamics Land Systems) AVDS-1790-9AR V-12 diesel (1,200hp) and is coupled to a new Ashot transmission. It has an auto-tracking system that locks onto targets with great accuracy and is based on the output from either a TV camera (day channel) or thermal imaging camera (night channel). Israel started to develop a Mk 4 in 1991 and is likely to be in service by 2010. It has been speculated that it will feature an integrated vehicle protection system and a new large calibre gun, possibly 140mm in size.
(Mk 1 / Mk 3)
Hull length: 7.45m / 7.97m.
Hull width: 3.7m / 3.72m.
Height: 2.75m / 2.8m.
Ground Clearance: 0.47m / 0.49m.
Weight: 60,000kg / 65,000kg (combat).
Ground pressure: 0.9kg/sq.cm / 0.96kg/sq.cm.
Max speed: 46km/h / 60km/h.
Max range (internal fuel): 400km / 500km (on road).
Armament: 105mm M68 rifled gun / 120mm smoothbore gun, 1 x 7.62mm MAG machine gun coaxial, 2 x 7.62mm MAG machine guns mounted on turret roof, 1 x M2HB 0.5in machine gun occasionally fitted.