On the Merkava Mark IV

I’ve already mentioned my fondness for the Namer. But let’s look at the other famous piece of Israeli heavy armor, the Merkava. Once again, Israeli experiences, especially in the wars of 1967 and 1973 featured heavily in designing a tank for their needs.

Despite being some of the staunchest devotees of Orthodox Maneuver Warfare, the Israelis have historically favored British tanks, which emphasize protection first, firepower second, and mobility third. The Israelis collaborated with the British on the design of the Chieftain, but after the Six Day War, the British refused to sell them to the Israelis, since the Israelis had struck first.1 The Israelis were incensed, and set about developing their own tank, the latest version of which is the Merkava Mark IV.

The Merkava has many unique features, most obviously a front-mounted engine. I’m not entirely sold on this idea, but the Israelis didn’t have access to composite armor technology when they first developed the Merkava, so they put the engine forward to maximize protection. The engine will stop a HEAT round, at the expense of dying. But a mobility-killed tank is a lot easier to replace than a tank crew, and the front mounted engine allows for a rear hatch, plus space at the back that can be used for plenty of ammo or the emergency transport of troops. A rear hatch makes it easy for the crew to safely escape a knocked-out tank, or to resupply the tank with ammo. Perfect for a defensive struggle with hordes of Syrian tanks as they surge across the Golan heights. This has stuck around, and the Merkava IV has a 1,500 hp engine up front, and a door at the back. I like the ammo capacity, but I think I’d prefer a more traditional layout and to load up with composite armor at the front.

The 1,500 horsepower engine is the MTU 883, probably the best diesel tank engine in the world today. It’s powerful, reliable, cheap, and relatively fuel efficient. And the Mark IV needs every one of those horsepowers. Wikipedia says the Mark IV weighs 65 tonnes, which is heavy. Heavier than an M1A2, heavier than a Leopard 2E, heavier than a standard Challenger 2, all of which come in around 63 tonnes. And yet, I call bullshit. The IDF is very secretive, even about the weight of their tanks. You could get fewer lies about weight if you asked Hillary Clinton how much she weighs. I have a much better source from an expert on the Merkava, who served in the IDF armored units, and he lists the weight of a Mark IV at “more than 70,000 kg”. That’s a good bit heavier. That’s heavier than the Leopard 2A7 with all the supplemental armor kits.

I might suggest the tank is heavier still. Photos of the turret with some of the armor modules removed shows that they’re mostly solid armor. I don’t know the competition, but that indicates a lot of weight, especially considering how big the Merkava is. And the 1,200 horsepower engine of the Merkava Mark III wasn’t enough. If that weighed about 63-65 tonnes, we could go from 78 to 81 tonnes without too much trouble as far as power/weight is concerned. That’s beastly. Remember, the British have been perfectly happy to add 12 tonnes of armor to the Challenger 2, and that only has a 1,200 horsepower engine. The Israelis have always thought like the British as far as tank design goes.

But enough rampant speculation. It is a big, heavy, very well-armored tank, that much is clear. I really like the turret design; the armor is very thick, even on traditionally less protected areas. There’s plenty of side armor, and more roof armor than on the turret of any other tank. And that’s in addition to a very thick looking turret face. Excellent! Hull armor is reasonably good too, with armored sponsons and plenty of armor on the hull front. The latest versions of the Mark IV even add a Trophy active protection system. More hull front armor might be nice, but the engine is there. The turret is a good shape. Protection of the hull sides, especially where the ammo is stored, leave something to be desired, since a hit in this area can cook off the stowed ammo.

I don’t have a ton of information on armor composition. Not that I’d believe it, given how much I question even the weight figures. Early marks used lots of spaced steel armor, trading weight for cost and protection. More recent marks probably use some kind of composite, something that works well in a highly sloped arrangement. It’s also used in multiple layers with air gaps in between in the turret. But given the published cost numbers, it’s probably not anything particularly exotic. It’s also not explosive reactive armor, despite extensive Israeli work on that. The Israelis are probably still trading thickness and weight for cheapish protection. However, I’m a little concerned about the armor design. Usually, composite modules are contained between inner and outer steel plates, to contain the modules. The Merkava doesn’t have the outer containing plates, so weapon hits tend to cause significant structural damage to the area around the impact point. Structural compromise beyond the area hit directly by the shaped charge jet indicates a limited ability to withstand multiple hits in the same armor module. Other designs are much better at not coming apart in the area around an impact.

I should take a moment to point out that most of the armor on the Mark IV is modular, and is easy to remove and replace for repair or upgrade, as long as a convenient crane is handy.

On to the firepower. The Merkava Mark IV has a 120mm gun, designed for high pressure rounds with an improved recoil system and stronger chamber over the 120mm gun on the Mark III. There’s also a coaxial 7.62mm machine gun, provision to mount an external coaxial 12.7mm machine gun, and another 7.62mm machine gun on the roof for the commander. There’s no machine gun for the loader though. Instead, his duties include loading a breach-loading 60mm mortar. This mortar comes from the lessons of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, and was also retrofitted to the other, foreign-built tanks in the Israeli inventory. It was used to launch starshells in the days before night vision. It’s also useful for engaging anti-tank teams in defilade, since it’s an indirect fire weapon. I really like this feature. I’m not sure about the external 12.7mm extra coax. I’d probably prefer a 12.7mm machine gun for the commander, though the Germans also seem to favor a GPMG for the roof.

Now, let’s talk survivability and ammo stowage, since those two go together. The Merkava’s large size is a big help to reducing how many crew are going to get injured in the event the armor is penetrated. About 8,000 rounds of machine gun ammo is carried, plus 40 rounds for the 60mm mortar. But that’s less of a big deal. Let’s look at main gun ammo. That’s what you’re here for. The Mark IV carries ten ready rounds in the bustle, in a pair of automatic five-round drums. The loader can select ammo type, and the drums will rotate and push it out a small hatch so he can grab it. Blow-out panels are provided over the ammo, of course. The smaller hatch makes the crew that much safer from ammo cook-off, and the automated system for selecting rounds is pretty sweet. But, 10 ready rounds is not a lot, the Leopard 2 has 15 and the Abrams has 17. I’d prefer it if there was more ready ammo.

The Mark IV carries 38 other rounds, six in the floor under the turret basket, and 32 in individual containers, 16 per side in the rear of the tank. These rounds can be removed to create space to evacuate tank crews or move infantry around, but aside from the protective containers, there’s not a lot of internal separation for these rounds. I’m not the biggest fan of this arrangement. It does predate heavily armored APCs like the Namer, and I’d prefer more isolation of ammo from crew, even at the expense of being stuck with the arrangements. Hull blow-out panels would be great here, or at least some isolation so you could get a halon extinguisher in each reserve magazine. On the other hand, the Israeli arrangement does make reloading easier, and tanks being shot at from behind are never going to fare well.

In terms of electronics, the Mark IV is right up there with the best of the West, with thermal sights and laser rangefinders for the commander and gunner, a battle management computer system, and a modern fire control computer complete with automatic target tracking. The Israelis also are the only Western country to produce the LAHAT, a gun-launched ATGM with semi-active laser homing guidance, providing extended range for the main gun. Currently, they’re fitting Trophy active protection systems to the Mark IV, because it’s not yet hard enough to kill.

So, when all is said and done, would we buy, if they were available? Would we prefer them to our chosen Leopard 2E?

No.

The Leopard 2E is better suited for conventional warfare, with massive frontal protection2 and the best production tank gun in the world. The Leopard 2E’s 120mm L55 gun is rated for more pressure than even the enhanced, Israeli-made 120mm L44 on the Mark IV. The Leopard 2E’s armor is properly encapsulated, so it won’t come apart around a hit area. It’s not difficult to add active protection
to the Leopard 2E, or the Abrams, or any other new tank. And the Leopard 2E even comes with improved roof armor and supplemental armor kits for the turret sides, hull skirts, and underbelly. So it can become almost as good at urban warfare. It’s just a better tank all-around, not being excessively optimized for incursions into Beirut.

1.) Apparently, striking first isn’t cool anymore, even if your enemy is preparing to strike you. Lame.
2.) As it should be.

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