Historical Background
The War of Independence was, in effect, an infantry war. Operations of both Israel and the enemy were waged by infantry formations. The few tanks deployed played no decisive role. Israel at that time had 15 tanks, and the Arabs had 45. Mobile and armored forces in the War of Independence were mainly equipped with half-tracks, armored personnel carriers, and armored vehicles with light guns. Israeli forces had 280 half-tracks and 20 armored vehicles with guns. Arab forces had 620 armored vehicles and armored personnel carriers, of which 180 carried guns.

The Sinai Campaign of 1956 was characterized by mobile, armored warfare. Israel deployed 200 tanks in Sinai, versus 150 tanks deployed by the Egyptians.

Since the Sinai Campaign, the land war between Israel and the surrounding Arab nations has become a war of highly mobile and armored formations. A total of 2,500 tanks were deployed during the Six-Day War by Israel and the enemies. 6,200 tanks engaged in combat during the Yom-Kippur war. Since the Sinai Campaign, thousands of tanks have been destroyed in battle.

Today, the tank is central to the art of war, and is considered the primary decisive factor on the modern land battlefield.

Prior to the Sinai Campaign Egypt received, within the framework of the "Czechoslovakian Arms Deal", 300 Soviet tanks and tank destroyers, including the Stalin-3 and T-34 tanks and SU-100 tank destroyers. This was considered an impressive addition to the Egyptian armored fleet, which at that time numbered some 430 western armored vehicles, of various types.

Within the scope of the Middle-East arms race, Israeli weaponry was always inferior in both qualitative and quantitative aspects. We acquired Sherman tanks and AMX-13 tanks (not really tanks but rather light tank destroyers), while the Arabs obtained, with no problems, new and modern tanks from both east and west. We were forced to be satisfied with "junk": old and inoperable tanks, second world war vintage Shermans, British Centurions and American M48's (Magach). 

Not a single country agreed to sell new tanks to us. It is still not clear why some countries did allow us to occasionally buy new and modern means of battle, such as jet fighter planes, but persisted in their refusal to sell us new tanks.

Given the need, we were forced to learn the technologies of armor, in order to rehabilitate the obsolete metal hulks, which we had purchased through programs of rebuilding, regunning and engine replacements.

The race between ourselves and the Arabs now became a direct confrontation between new Western and Soviet MBT's fielded by the Arab armies and old, rebuilt and improvised tanks fielded by Israel.

In the 1960's the Arabs were about to obtain T-62 tanks from Soviet Russia. This was the most modern operational Main Battle Tank (MBT) of its time, equipped with a high-powered 115-mm cannon. It. was clear that no improvisations or rejuvenation to tanks of the 1940s and 1950s would suffice to ensure the continued security, and indeed the existence, of the State of Israel.

At that time, in 1966, Britain came forward with a dramatically historic proposal. The British needed money in order to complete the development of their new tank of the future, the Chieftain, with its 120-mm cannon. This tank was designed to be the strongest and most modern in the west. In view of their financial constraints they proposed a "package deal". According to this deal, we would buy hundreds of obsolete Centurion tanks. They, in exchange, would allow us to participate in the final stages of Chieftain development, would sell us Chieftains, and would help us build, in Israel, an assembly line for Chieftains. This was seen as an ideal solution to the unacceptable predictions regarding the middle-eastern armor balance from both quantitative and qualitative points of view.

Our cooperation with the British lasted for about three years. Two prototypes of the Chieftain tank were delivered to Israel. Israel invested heavily in the improvement and final development of the Chieftain in close cooperation with British officers and engineers, who worked with us in Israel.

However, Arab states intervened. They threatened Britain with sanctions, with pulling their monetary reserves out of British banks, and other actions. Demonstrations were held in Arab capitals and British embassies were attacked. In November 1969 Britain withdrew from its Chieftain deal with Israel.

The development, design and planning efforts of three years were wasted - and we were back at square one, with time lost which could not be retrieved.

In view of this development, we considered the possibility of developing and manufacturing "made-in-Israel" tanks.

It was clear that a weapon system of primary importance was at stake, vital to our security, but which had been refused, to Israel by all nations. No change in this attitude was foreseen.

The question, which arose therefore, was not whether we should engage in development and manufacture of a homemade tank, but whether we would be capable of achieved the high levels of industrial and technological expertise required to succeed in such a project. To this was added the question of whether we would be capable of doing so at a reasonable price and without disrupting the Israeli economy.

In order to answer these questions, it was decided to conduct a study, presided by Major General Israel Tal. The study was conducted by experts of the Ministry of Defense and of the Ordnance Corps, and was designed to answer two essential questions:

1. Would Israel be capable of planning, designing and manufacturing a Main Battle Tank from the point of view of technological know-how and industrial infrastructure?

2. Is there any economic sense in such a project - does it ensure economic viability in the broad sense, to the economy of Israel?

Findings of the study were positive. Israel would be capable of developing and establishing an infrastructure for the manufacture of tanks, which would be economically feasible from the point of view of the national economy. In addition, the proposed Israeli tank would compare favorably with others, would meet the specific requirements of the IDF and the specific needs of the middle-eastern theatre of war. In 1970 the decision was taken that the State of Israel would develop a tank for the IDF and for export in the future.
Organization and Method of Development and Manufacture
The original plan was for the development of a tank to be based primarily an existing systems and assemblies. But even from the first years of development the need arose, in view of know-how restrictions, technological reasons and operational requirements which developed over time, to develop an entirely new tank which would be based on both original and new assemblies. The development task was modified accordingly.

The need to shorten development time gave rise to an abbreviated development process, while knowingly taking risks, which later became known as the "telescopic development" process. This method is characterized by the start of serial production, based on prototypes, before completion of all development and demonstration stages. This is prior to the finalizing of production files.

In order to reduce the investments needed for the establishment and management of a tank, manufacturing industry, we decided not to form double organization, with the backup services required for such a project (procurement, inventories, legal and economic service units, etc.). It was decided that the Project Administration would utilize existing MOD/IDF infrastructures such as Equipment Center facilities, spare part inventories, procurement and manufacturing controls, MOD legal advisor staff, MOD economic advisor staff, and others.

It was further decided to utilize the industrial infrastructures existing in the IDF, the civilian and governmental military industries, and to expand the manufacturing potential of existing plant where necessary. To the extent possible inflated bureaucracies or the creation of new industries would be avoided. It was now decided that the existing IDF basic tank depot would be utilized as the tank's final assembly plant. In addition, two hundred industrial plants would be upgraded with new knowledge and capabilities, as required for the manufacture of the thousands of parts, assemblies and systems, needed for the Merkava tank.

A policy of regional distribution of manufacturing facilities throughout Israel was evolved, including development regions, with maximum utilization of civilian enterprises and no monopoly for the military industries.

It was decided that any technological knowledge, which was lacking would be acquired in part from abroad, and in part self-developed within the defense establishment, the industrial establishment and by Israeli research institutes.

The Merkava Generations

The first Merkava Mk. 1 tanks were supplied to the IDF in April 1979, nearly nine years after the decision to produce the Merkava Mk. 1 tank was taken. The Merkava Mk. 1 tank has been designed in accordance with experience gained from IDF armored battles in all Israel's wars since the Sinai Campaign (1956).

The Merkava Mk. 1 is unique in its basic concept, common to all generations of the Merkava Mk. 1, according to which armor and survivability of the tank are its basic features. The tank's protection is based on all-round spaced ballistic armor, and deployment of the tank systems around the crew, thus utilizing basic elements and systems of the tank to protect the crew and ammunition, in addition to their specific functions. The most striking example of this concept is placement of the power pack (engine and transmission) at the front of the tank.

Other factors contributing to the Merkava Mk. 1's survivability are:

  • Low profile when in firing position
  • Elimination of flammable materials from the crew compartments
  • Storage of main gun ammunition under the turret ring, well to the rear of the hull, in heat-resistant containers

The Merkava Mk. 1 tank participated with a high degree of success in Lebanon War (1982) when the war started Israel had 200-300 Merkava Mk. 1 tanks. The Merkava Mk. 1 proved superior to the Syrian T-72 MBT (then the Soviet's newest tank).

Production of Merkava Mk. 1 continued up to 1983, when the IDF Armor Corps began to receive the
Merkava Mk. 2

Lessons learned from the operation of the Merkava Mk. 1 tanks were applied to the Merkava Mk. 2 tanks, mainly in the following: 

  • Improved mobility
  • Improved fire control system
  • improved special armor
  • Internal 60mm mortar

The production of Merkava Mk. 2 tanks continued until the end of 1989, at which time Merkava Mk. 3 tanks started to come off the production line.

The Merkava Mk. 3 entered service in the IDF at the beginning of 1990. It is a sophisticated tank. The difference between the Mk. 3 and the Mk. 2 is in essence and not in degree. All systems and assemblies were new, and except for the engine, are of Israeli design and production. 

Among the prominent features of the Merkava Mk. 3 were the new and unique suspension system, the high powered engine, the powerful main gun, and, especially, a new and unique concept of armor. Ballistic protection is provided by special armor modules, which are attached to the tank by bolts. These can be easily replaced whenever better ballistic technology is introduced. Thus, the tank will remain "young" forever. 

During the Merkava Mk. 3's years of production, a number of modifications have been introduced, the major ones being a modern fire control system with an automatic target tracker ("Baz") and significant improvements in ballistic protection. 

The production of the Merkava Mk. 3 lasted until 2002, whereupon the Merkava Mk. 4 was first fielded to the Armor Corp.

Merkava Mk. 1
Merkava Mk. 2
Merkava Mk. 3
Merkava Mk. 4

Merkava ARV

Merkava Baz by Chuckmeister