Different tanks, different requirements.
Key point: The Israeli military is far more concerned with the threat posed by advanced anti-tank missiles fired by insurgents.
The Israeli Merkava (Chariot) main battle tank is an example of a sophisticated weapon system designed to deal with very specific national requirements.
Though similar in performance to Western main battle tanks such as the German Leopard 2 and American M1 Abrams, the Merkava has many features not found in any other contemporary tank designs.
Today we’ll compare the Merkava to the Abrams in terms of the three vital qualities of a tank: firepower, mobility, and armor.
First, however, a little background.
The Merkava was first conceived by an Israeli General Israel Tal following the titanic armored clashes of the Yom Kippur War. Tal wanted a tank that prioritized crew protection above all else. The Merkava I entered service in 1978, and saw its first major action in Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982, where it performed well in engagements with Syrian T-62 tanks. Nonetheless, several were lost in battle, and the subsequent Merkava II tank featured upgraded spaced armor. The 1990s saw the Merkava III with a critical upgrade to a 120 millimeter main gun, and finally the latest Merkava IV has a more powerful engine and has recently been fitted with a sophisticated active-protection system for use against anti-tank missiles and rockets.
The Abrams, of course, is the classic American design introduced in the 1980s which devastated Soviet-made Iraqi armor in the 1991 Gulf War without losing a single tank to enemy fire. Though the M1’s reputation for invulnerability was slightly dented by a few losses in the later 2003 war in Iraq and more recently by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, the Abrams still helped set a standard in tank performance that only a few designs can rival. The U.S. Army has continuously tweaked the M1’s ammunition, armor package, and sensors to keep it up to date.
Is there any a chance of Israeli Merkavas could confront M1s in combat?
Both Egypt and Iraq have fought wars with Israel and currently operate Abrams tanks with downgraded armor. However, given the decent Israeli-Egypt relationship today and Iraq’s present situation, encounter between these armored monsters will likely remain confined to speculative scenarios in computer games. Thus, this comparison is more focused on how well the two designs serve their nation’s military needs.
The Merkava IV and the M1 are both armed with powerful 120 millimeter guns of comparable performance–they can easily dispatch most Soviet-era tanks at any combat range. The Merkava may lack some of the fancy depleted uranium shells available to M1 tanks. These would be optimized for defeating advanced reactive armor systems on modern Russian tanks—but Israel hasn’t faced significant opposition from enemy tanks since the early 1980s, and doesn’t have to worry about any sophisticated armored threats in its neighborhood.
The Merkava can fire anti-tank missiles from its main gun tube, while the M1 cannot. The Merkava’s LAHAT top-attack missiles would be suitable for attacking vehicles or helicopters (in direct fire mode) at extremely long ranges where tank shells lack accuracy and hitting power. However, it must be noted that tank-launched missiles have seen little actual use in combat and are seen in the West as a somewhat niche capability. Both vehicles are also armed with sophisticated sensors and fire control systems, as well as data-links to network with friendly armor.
The Merkava and M1 now both feature remotely-operated machine guns, helping protect the crew from exposure when fighting in urban environments. However, the Merkava uniquely among modern tanks is armed with a 60 millimeter light mortar that can be fired from within the turret. This allows a Merkava to drop anti-personnel shells on targets out of line of sight—for example, behind a wall or on the other side of a hill. It also affords the crew an additional means to engage the enemy without resorting to the overwhelming blasts of its main gun, an important consideration in counter-insurgency warfare.
The M1 is designed to engage in fast-paced armored warfare with tanks making decisive thrusts over long distances as occurred in Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. By contrast, the Merkava is oriented to meet Israel’s operational realities, including defensive warfare against foreign invasion and counter-insurgency operations in urban environments and mountainous terrain. Accordingly, while the M1A2 is capable of tearing down the road at over 42 miles per hour, early models of the Merkava crept along in the low- to mid-30s.
However, the Merkava IV has an upgraded 1,500 horsepower diesel engine, allowing it to attain 40 miles per hour, largely closing the gap. The M1’s turbine engine is also an infamously demanding beast, limiting the vehicle to an operational range of 265 miles compared to 310 for the Merkava IV. Lastly, Israel claims the suspension on the Merkava is optimized to deal with the rocky terrain of the Golan Heights.
The Merkava also has one additional feature unlike any other Western MBT; its ammunition compartment can be repurposed to carry a team of four infantrymen. This is intended more as emergency field expedient—say to evacuate the crew of knocked out tank or wounded personnel—rather than as a standard tactical procedure.
When the M1 was first produced in the 1980s, its Chobham composite armor represented a breakthrough in armor technology. The M1’s frontal armor completely outmatched most early anti-tank missiles and proved impervious to the standard 125 millimeter armor piercing shells fired by Iraqi T-72 tanks in the 1991 Gulf War. (Russia has since introduced more powerful 125 millimeter shells that may be effective against the M1’s armor at shorter distances.)
The original Merkava I did not benefit from composite armor technology. Instead, the Israelis design featured a heavily sloped turret that gave the Merkava it’s space-age sleekness. Sloped armor plate is effectively thicker against most incoming shells (depending on the angle of approach), and also poses a lower target profile. Later Merkava models did incorporate new armor technology, and the Merkava IV now has a modular composite armor package. Though formidable, the Merkava IV’s armor is still thought to be a bit inferior to the depleted-uranium armor in the M1A2, which has benefitted to constant upgrades over the years. The Merkava IV would not necessarily come out on top in a clash against the world’s top main battle tanks.
However, the Israeli military is far more concerned with the threat posed by advanced anti-tank missiles fired by insurgents. In the 2006 war in Lebanon, out of 50 Merkava IIs, IIIs and IVs struck by Hezbollah projectiles and IEDs, 21 were penetrated and six destroyed. Such missiles have also reaped a fearsome toll on Saudi Arabian M1 tanks in Yemen—though it should be noted those M1s have inferior armor compared to those in U.S. service.
Following the Lebanon conflict, the IDF introduced the Merkava IVM Windbreaker variant possessing a strong missile-defense capability in its Trophy Active Protection System, which can detect incoming missiles using a radar and attempts to shoot them down with a shotgun blast. The system also notifies the tanks crew of the location that the projectile came from, allowing them to fire back quickly.
Most promisingly, the Trophy has proven highly effective in combat, shooting down dozens of missiles and rockets, including at least one RPG-29 and the AT-14 Kornet. Not a single Merkava tank was lost in combat operations in 2008 and 2014—despite the war in 2014 being a costly one for the Israeli Defense Forces.
The U.S. Army is interested adapting APS technology to its own vehicles, but has been taking its time deciding whether to purchase Trophy off the shelf or field the domestically developed Quick Kill APS. Until that happens, however, the M1 will remain more vulnerable to missiles than the Israeli tank.
The Merkava has a number of other unusual design elements designed to improve crew survivability. For example, the engine is mounted in front of the crew compartment so as to absorb some of the force of incoming shells. The rear hull also has a small exit hatch allowing the crew to bail out from the vehicle in relative safety, as well as facilitating the transport of friendly infantry or wounded personnel. Chains dangling iron balls hang from the rear turret in order to prematurely detonate rocket propelled grenades aimed at the vehicle’s thinner rear armor.
There are also modifications to accommodate the basic human needs of the crew. For example, the Merkava boasts a top-notch air conditioning system befitting its Middle Eastern stomping ground. There is even has an optional toilet module to protect the crew from exposing themselves to hostile fire on very long missions. As depicted in the Israeli war film Lebanon, tank crews have sometimes been forced to remain in action for days on counterinsurgency operations.
Ultimately, the Merkava IV and M1A2 are both designed according to different national doctrines and operational requirements. The U.S. tank is meant to fight rapid Blitzkrieg-style wars with enemy tanks as its chief target, while the Merkava is expected to fight defensive battles and provide support to counterinsurgency operations in urban and mountain terrain. The M1 benefits from certain technologies unavailable to Israeli industry, notably in depleted uranium armor and ammunition. On the other hand, the Merkava has long had a greater emphasis on crew convenience and protection.
If the Merkava IV offers any lessons to the U.S. military, it should be regarding the importance of fielding effective countermeasures against more advanced anti-tank missiles such as the Kornet, which the U.S. military has so far only encountered in limited numbers. The Merkava IV’s combat experience with the Trophy APS suggests that implementing such an upgrade to the U.S. tank fleet could significantly improve its survivability.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
This appeared in November 2017.