While American and European main battle tanks rest on 1970s designs, Israel has again forged ahead by introducing its latest tank, the Merkava V.
The new tank differs from its predecessors because of its expanded and integrated weapons, operational autonomy and 360-degree active defense systems. This puts the Israeli tank far ahead of all its competitors – including Russia’s latest tank, known as the T-14 Armata.
Merkava V goes by the model name Barak. It appears the name is not a reference to Ehud Barak, who was chief of staff and later prime minister. In Hebrew the word barak means lightning.
Barak also refers to the Biblical military leader Barak, who was a commander under Deborah (1107 BC to 1067 BC), Israel’s first woman leader or judge (Judges 4, 5). Barak fought against the Canaanite general Sisera whose army had 900 iron chariots (the name merkava means chariot). Through clever tactics, Barak and Deborah defeated Sisera.
The Merkava tank evolved from the fighting experience of Israeli armored forces in the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. In that war, Israel had British Centurion tanks, US M-48 Patton and M-60 main battle tanks and some upgraded Russian T-55 tanks.
Egypt successfully introduced new antitank weapons and new tactics that caused significant losses in Israel’s tank and armor forces. The worst of the tanks was the M-60, the predecessor to the Abrams tank.
That tank was victimized by Egyptian wire-guided Sagger anti-tank missiles and by RPG-7s fired by Egyptian infantry. Those weapons penetrated the tanks’ armor, often leading to the cook-off of stored weapons inside a tank.
Beyond that, the tanks’ gun tubes warped from heavy use in combat, engines frequently broke down from desert sand ingestion and fuel cells mysteriously exploded in the hot, sandy environment.
Tank commanders, who sat out in the open exposed to enemy fire, were picked off by snipers and wounded by shrapnel. Too many commanders and tank crews were lost in the Sinai and in the Golan Heights.
After the war, Israel recognized that nothing available to it on the open market promised any better performance. Israel would need either to modify the tanks that it had (including a large number of captured Russian tanks) or to build its own new tank.
The genius behind Israel’s new tank was General Israel Tal (1924-2010), known in Israel as Tallik.
Tal had already become a tank hero based on his performance during the Six-Day War (June 1967) and his leadership in the southern command in the Yom Kippur War. He was a student of tank warfare and was regarded as one of the best tacticians in the business.
His goal for a new tank was one that focused first and foremost on crew protection instead of firepower. Mobility was also important but, as Tal made clear, the key in tank battles was not the tank’s top speed but rather its ability to sprint out of trouble.
In cars, we measure this typically in rating how long it takes to go from zero to 60 miles per hour or zero to 96 kilometers per hour.
The first important innovation in the Merkava was to move the power plant from the rear to the front of the tank. This added additional frontal protection, but it also made room for the tank crew to exit from a rear hatch. It also enabled the tank to safely extract wounded from the battlefield.
The commander’s exposure was eliminated on the first Merkava tanks by using a mirror. As Tal explained, mirrors are easily replaced and cheap. Commanders are neither.
What changed with Merkava IV was new protection under the tank against IEDs and mines, and the retrofit of active protection plus upgraded armor.
An active protection system is a countermeasure against enemy anti-tank weapons, mortars and rockets. It uses radar and other sensors to detect incoming threats and launches explosively formed projectiles to destroy them. The so-called Trophy system has been designed to contain the blast to protect nearby infantry.
Merkava V now integrates active protection with radar and electro-optical warning systems, cameras and other sensors. The tank’s sensors and digital processing also link up with other tanks and weapons on the battlefield, making the Merkava V the first tank with netcentric capabilities.
European and American tanks are only beginning to use active protection. None has achieved net centricity and they still don’t offer a way out for the crew if a tank is hit, other than through a hatch atop the tank.
Tal started out as a machine gunner in the British Jewish Brigade, which fought in North Africa and Italy in World War II. Later he joined the Hagenah and eventually, after the creation of the State of Israel, he joined Israel’s Defense Forces.
Like many of his contemporaries, on the political spectrum he was to the left of his friend Yitzhak Rabin. But Israelis on both sides of the political spectrum, when it came to defending the state, were highly professional and excellent fighters.
For Tal’s generation and those that followed, the guiding mantra was “never again.” Israel to this day understands its mandate to protect the state and avoid another holocaust. Israel’s main current-day enemy, Iran, makes no secret of its goal to annihilate Israel.
I met Tal in 1975 on a factory floor near Tel Aviv where the first Merkava prototype was under construction. It was an instructive and impressive chance to gain a greater understanding of how armor doctrine was evolving and how Israel was finding a way to use its armor effectively while never again experiencing the tank losses of the Yom Kippur war.
As I watch the war in Ukraine and the heavy loss of armor 50 years after Israel recognized the need to upgrade its systems, I wonder why Russia, Europe, and to some degree the United States have been so slow to modernize armor fighting capabilities.