Israel’s Merkava Tank vs. America’s Powerful M1 Abrams

 In Land, Israel

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By Sebastien Roblin, The National Interest

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.

Firepower:

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.

Mobility:

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.

Armor:

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 first appeared sev­er­al years ago.)

Image: Reuters.

This piece was originally published by The National Interest

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