Israel’s Merkava Tank Is Impressive, but Here’s Why Most Nations Haven’t Adopted It

 In GDI, Land, Defense, Israel

Key Point: It’s clear why most nations have stuck to more tra­di­tion­al designs instead of embrac­ing the Merkava’s frontal engine tank design.

The Merkava tank is some­times called the most sur­viv­able tank in the world. The rea­sons given usu­al­ly include its active pro­tec­tion system, for­ward engine design, urban war­fare spe­cif­ic mod­i­fi­ca­tions, and thick armor. But do these claims hold up to scruti­ny?

The Merkava was designed in the 1970s fol­low­ing the fail­ure to pur­chase Chieftain tanks from the United Kingdom. Originally designed to duke it out with Soviet tanks in the deserts sur­round­ing Israel, the tank was laid out in a rather unortho­dox manner com­pared to con­tem­po­rary Western and Soviet tanks, fea­tur­ing a design more akin to some infantry fight­ing vehi­cles. Instead of having the engine at the rear, the engine was moved in front of the crew com­part­ment, with the turret placed fur­ther back on the chas­sis.

The result was that the front armor could be more grad­u­al­ly sloped, and the crew could enter and exit the tank quick­ly from the rear.

However, this comes with the draw­back of having the engine more easily dis­abled, as any pen­e­trat­ing front hit will dis­able it. Israeli doc­trine pri­or­i­tizes the sur­viv­abil­i­ty of the crew in an engage­ment, so in the event of a dis­abling hit the crew will bail out rapid­ly through the rear hatch if the sit­u­a­tion allows. On the other hand, a pen­e­trat­ing frontal hit on a west­ern tank will likely leave the tank still mobile.

While the ques­tion of whether a tank crew would stay in a tank or not after a pen­e­trat­ing hit is up for a lot of debate, there are instances where mobil­i­ty will increase the sur­viv­abil­i­ty of the crew, pri­mar­i­ly in a fight­ing dis­en­gage­ment where the tank might be sur­round­ed. In an engage­ment where an attack is suc­ceed­ing (which to be fair to the Israeli Defense Forces, is likely in most of their post-1970s con­flicts), the Merkava’s design makes sense, but for a European army expect­ing to hold against a Soviet or later a Russian advance, a mobil­i­ty kill might be a far bigger deal.

The other big issue is the stor­age of the ammu­ni­tion in the Merkava. Ammo in the Merkava is stored in the crew com­part­ment in flame-resis­tant plas­tic con­tain­ers. While these con­tain­ers can delay the cook-off of ammu­ni­tion, Merkavas have suf­fered cat­a­stroph­ic fail­ures when their ammu­ni­tion load was hit. The Merkava Mk 4 mit­i­gates this by stor­ing some ammo in the turret with blow-off panels, but this stor­age can only hold ten rounds. This makes it far less sur­viv­able in event of an ammu­ni­tion hit com­pared to bustle stor­age designs such as the M1 Abrams, K2 Black Panther, or Leclerc.

However the posi­tion of ammu­ni­tion in the rear of the hull does make it hard to hit in a frontal engage­ment and a hit to that area is only likely if the tank is engaged from the side aspect, a deadly sit­u­a­tion for almost any tank. The Merkava also mit­i­gates the risk of side shots with mod­u­lar armor and active pro­tec­tion sys­tems, though these are becom­ing stan­dard on most modern tanks.

Does all of this mean the Merkava is a poor tank? No. But it’s clear why most nations have stuck to more tra­di­tion­al designs instead of embrac­ing the Merkava’s frontal engine tank design.

Charlie Gao stud­ied Political and Computer Science at Grinnell College and is a fre­quent com­men­ta­tor on defense and nation­al secu­ri­ty issues.

This arti­cle first appeared in March 2019. It is being repub­lished due to reader inter­est.

Image: Reuters.

Source: National Interest

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