Israel's new tank, the Merkava-4, is headed into service soon. (more pictures here) It incorporates a number of new features, including an upgraded engine, armor improvements, a new battle management and communication system that approaches American standards (and, it should be added, the French LeClerc tank's), plus upgraded sights and a main gun that can engage at a wider arc and fire 120mm shells or Israel's LAHAT missile.
One very suggestive analysis has looked at the design of the new Merkava 4, and come to an interesting conclusion: its primary modifications and anti-helicopter capabilities are designed for war with Syria. While Syria may be the most likely site of use, Israeli force planning can hardly afford to ignore potential threats from its other neighbours as they modernize with the latest Western equipment. One could make an equally persuasive case that it's designed to counter an Egyptian threat by using superior command and control, long range missile sniping and an upgraded gun to counter any range deficits aginst Egypt's M-1, and an anti-helicopter capability that is equally valuable for maintaining Israeli ability to encircle and engage in the Negev desert and across the Suez.
The Merkava development program was born of necessity, when other countries refused to sell tanks to the Jewish state. They've done an impressive job designing a vehicle that fits the needs of their unique environment, largely as a result of the tight integration between battlefield use and the design and development cycle.
The Merkava's distinctive innovations include such unusual features as:
- Placing the engine at the very front, where it also serves as additional armor in a pinch that helps protect the crew.
- An internal 60mm mortar, which offers excellent emergency suppressive fire against infantry firing guided anti-tank missiles. Make them duck, flinch, or die, and they can't control the missile. It also gives the Merkava general mortar capability for smoke, illumination and other tasks.
- Exceptionally low frontal exposure when firing from prepared positions, which significantly boosts their defensive capabilities. While Mk.3 upgraded and Mk.4 version has sacrificed some of this for additional armor, overall exposure is still favourable.
- Placing the turret near the back means the tank never has to swivel its gun backward for "non-tactical" movement when crossing obstacles, etc; the gun always faces forward.
- A drinking water tank on top of the ammunition storage and a fuel tank below, plus specially designed ammunition containers help make the tank less vulnerable to detonation of its ammo, and provide additional armor protection.
- A rear door that can be used as a safer escape hatch than the usual exit-out-the top approach. In emergency situations, it can also be used as an entry point for stretchers or small infantry teams if some of the ammunition is removed. While this is not common on full-intensity battlefields, it's an excellent capability to have on hand when fighting fedayeen units in urban areas.
- At a time when the blueprint for a battle tank seems remarkably similar, the Israeli's have been willing to "think different." Their design has proven itself in battle against Soviet equipment, and while performance against the latest tanks like the M-1 or French LeClerc has yet to be tested its gun and ammunition should allow it to hold its own. The Merkava program has been a noteworthy success overall, especially considering the comparative fiasco of India's own efforts with the Arjun tank.
That these Mark 4 modifications have been incorporated without increasing the tank's weight is a testament to a whole history of good design, not just one successful development program.