A few weeks ago a former Merkava tanker accepted an interview for the blog. Z. served for more than a decade in all Merkava variants and can provide an insight in the operation of this tank. He also participated in the testing of upgraded M60s and T-72s.
1. Hello Z., many thanks for accepting an interview for alejandro-8en.blogspot.com. Can you provide an introduction to your service in the Israeli Army?
I served between 2002-2005 active service
I first been in the 7th brigade, 77 OZ battalion - at the time they operated Merkava MK2. I first served as a gunner and later on as a commander. Done some combat tours at the end of "Homat Magen" (Defensive shield) operation, so mostly LIC in Palestinians cities and Gaza strip border security.
Later on I was transferred to the IDF experiment unit where I had done different trials in various Merkava variants from 2 to 4. It was the start of deployment of the Mk4 so a lot of "beta testing" was done along with testing some new capabilities to be incorporated into the tank.
I had some time on the Turkish tank project (Sabra) and even had the opportunity to test some upgrade package to an Indian T-72 – A tank very few Israeli tankers encountered – let alone operated.
On my reserve duty I received an Mk 1 until it was completely phased out of service. Then my unit got new tasking as convoy escort with scout Humvees and no tanks.
2. You started your career in the Merkava Mk 2. What were your first impressions? What do you think were the strong and weak points?
The tanks that IDF used were presented to newly drafted soldiers, along with background on the brigade that was operating it at the time. and we were given a “choice” in which we preferred. The IDF had 4 Tanks in its inventory at the time: Magach 6B gal, Magach 7, Merkava Mk 2 and Merkava Mk 3. Even though Mk 3 was a lot more modern than the Mk 2, my brother had served before me on it in the 7th brigade, so I followed his footsteps and marked that first. The Magach tanks were always looked upon by Merkava tankers, since the Merkava was “whole Israeli”, even though the Magachs had a lot of indigenous improvements, making it almost on par with the Merkavas in terms of firepower and armor, still its “cool” factor was much less.
The Mk 2 was quite old at the time, compared to the Mk 3, so it’s easier to mark the weak points:
- Only area stabilization - no point stabilisation (video tracking) like on later models
- Hydraulic turret traverse compared to electrical on the Mk 3
- Smaller calibre on main gun
- 105mm munition spent casing were brass and weren’t self-disintegrating like the 120mm munition.
- Commander sight was pretty much useless for fighting with hatches closed.
Still, it was a valid tank at the time, even though it was slower and weaker than the later variants, it could easily operate in all terrains it met – mud and boulders in the Golan, steep roads in Lebanon and the thin sand of the south.
3. What was the typical speed and distance to the target when firing? And the longest distance at which you ever fired? How did this change with the subsequent Merkava variants?
Since the Mk 2 didn’t have point stabilization, firing on the move took some skill, but wasn’t very hard, I only did it in training since no major tank battles were seen since 1982, but I think the speed was probably around 20KPH to short ranges of no more than 1500m.
The longest shot I had was to 5000m with a hit, the ballistic computer could calculate up to 9999m but naturally it would be very hard to shoot that far since the target would be tiny on the sight if visible at all.
On later variants it was very easy to shoot on the move, on the Mk4 we found out during tests that its accuracy grew even higher when shooting on the move than while static, since the point tracking was used (I’m talking about few centimetres of difference of course on a test target) – while the mk2 was expected and average of hitting the target on the second round, the Mk 3 and 4 was able to hit on the first round every time, as long as the gunner wasn’t blind.
The speeds we were able to shoot on the move on the mk4 was only constrained by the max speed of the tank – which is 64km/h (real top speed is 80 but it was considered unsafe and was electrically limited on the engine).
4. What was the maximum rate of fire you achieved? Did it change noticeably as you went through the different bins? What about when using the 120 mm rounds?
Maximum fire rate was mostly depending on how capable the loader is, what are we shooting at and how good me as a gunner or my gunner was at returning the reticle on the target. We never had to fire that many rounds in a series so it’s hard to answer, we shot on combat scenarios, on combat like training, or testing so achieving a “maximum rate” wasn’t that important. I can say that I was able to load a round in about 6 seconds, from the main loader cartridges, and I’m not a very strong person.
On the Merkava 4 loading took much less time since it has the semi-automatic ammo compartment that ejects the round to the loader’s hands, and he doesn’t need to lift it from the lower compartments.
Of course, there’s a difference on the speed the loader can load from each compartment. Whenever he could, he had to move fresh rounds to the more accessible compartments.
On all Merkavas most of the rounds are in the back end of the hull, half of that is behind the loader and the others are behind the commander. The loader has a quick bin mainly used for fire on the move (you don’t want to stick you hands in the hull when the hull and turret are constantly moving) on the mk2 it had a 6 rounds quick compartment, but it wasn’t very comfortable. On the mk3 there were only 4 but it was much more accessible, the mk4, as I mentioned before, has that fast-loading compartment that holds 10 rounds on 2 revolver like drums hidden behind a steel door and below blowout panels on the turret roof – which is also much safer than the other variants.
5. What was the typical ammunition configuration load (% APFDS/HEAT/other)?
There’s no absolute answer to that – it depends on the scenario, what’s in the weapons depot and so on. Since I mostly served in low intensity combat zones, we usually had a some APFDS rounds, a lot of HEAT rounds, some HE Squash heads, and some flechette rounds. The APFDS was of the low quality – they’re useful to crack concrete cubes blocking the roads before shooting HE on it, but since no enemy tanks are expected no need in carrying the best APFDS the IDF have in store.
For the 120mm smooth bore guns there is no HE squash, but nowadays HEAT, HE, Flechette etc. is no longer used and was replaced with CALANIT APAM-MP-T that can do everything and more, so a tank would carry a mix of those and APFDS in numbers that fit the scenario at hand.
6. Merkava Mk 3 and 4 received a 120 mm gun but carried less ammunition as a result. Did you miss any feature from the 105 mm gun (ammunition types/extra rounds/?
The reduction in number of rounds is not significant, I don’t even remember the difference, but since the chances of hitting the target is doubled its really isn’t an issue. The 45-54 rounds on the tank should be enough for the amount of time a tank is expected to be in combat until supplies reach it.
I’ve already mentioned the change in ammo types – It makes a better loadout since multipurpose round can be used to all lightly armoured targets, entrenched infantry, building etc. and the tank don’t need to waste space for un-needed types of ammo just in case it’s needed.
7. When carrying out the beta training in the Merkava Mk 4, what were the most common issues?
Well, I guess it was more like alpha testing if you want to be exact, since we were the first testers for any new technology, with engineers coming along with us on the tank with their computers hooked up to the systems.
We had all kind of issues at first, some are safety issues – like a case where the turret started rotating non stop in a very specific conditions, only hard reset to the electric power stopped it – we had to spend a week trying to replicate it. Another problem was the brakes not working when going in reverse in a specific condition – emergency breaking it worked.
but most of the times we tested things like:
- How well the stabiliser works in different terrains and conditions – for instance we had to drive 500km on concrete to see the effect the intense vibrations will have on the drift of the system.
- What is the accuracy in different conditions with different parameters?
- We’ve tested an INS navigation system that could replace the GPS if needed.
- We checked the video point track on different target types.
- Firing on helicopters – We used a 1.5m long RC helicopter – we fired an APFDS round – it pierced it right in the centre.
Also tested the different sight systems and thermal imaging devices for the TC and gunner. We even tested what is the fastest speed the turret can rotate before the crew get sick.
8. Merkava Mk 4 incorporated an automatic loader and LAHAT missiles. What are your views on these systems? Do you think the extra range provided by the missile is worth it in the Israeli scenario?
There’s no automatic loader, only semi-automatic, as I’ve explained before – A fast-loading compartment that holds 10 rounds on 2 revolver like drums hidden behind a steel door and below blowout panels on the turret roof. The loader chooses what round he needs using a control panel next to door, the drum spins, the door open and the right round ejects to the loader’s hands.
I’ve never seen the LAHAT, never had it in the turret and never heard about it being used in combat.
Honestly, I don’t see any use for it given the capabilities of the tank to track moving targets and hit them precisely – the tank round is much faster than any missile (approx. – Mach 3). I don’t really know what this missile is capable of in terms of guidance, I know it’s capable for NLOS launch so it might be good for supporting infantry on a target they lase, and the tank don’t see or want to stay in cover and shoot with buddy lase, but there are much more capable platforms for that. I guess it’s a “Nice to have” capability, when needed.
9. When you served in the reserve duty you used a Merkava Mk 1. Did you consider it to be a valid tank post 2005? Did you struggle to operate a tank with no hunter/killer capability and thermal sight?
The Merkava Mk1 was more like a cart than a chariot 😉, its ballistic computer was outdated (same as mk2), most of the tanks (but not all) didn’t have thermals, and even if it did it wasn’t as good as the mk4. There weren’t any new engines and parts, so a lot of the tanks had mechanical problems. It was very slow in general compered to its counterparts. That said, it was still a capable machine compared to the tanks it was expected to meet on the battlefield, especially with the right hands – we were very trained and experienced tank crews, so if we were ever to be called to battle on it, we would’ve managed.
The Mk 4, especially with the trophy and battle management systems is by far a much more capable platform form firepower to crew preservation.
10. Did you carry out gunnery exercises during the night with Merkava Mk 1? Did you use the IR night sight or flares for illumination? In case it is both, which one was more effective?
We mostly used the IR sight, it was the same as using the day sight in terms of accuracy, but night fighting without thermal sights is hard, even with thermals it’s a much slower and difficult process. All this is changing with battle management computers – the TCs have much better situational awareness now. That said, the Merkava is optimised for fighting with closed hatches, until it was introduced tank commanders in the IDF were trained to have their heads outside, which was great for spotting targets and directing the driver but very dangerous. I’ve never been on it in combat, I always wonder how these TCs manage from the inside.
11. Merkava tanks have a number of particular features. One is the spring coil suspension. Could you describe it's advantages and disadvantages? Did you experience any issues when operating in Gaza strip or other terrains (hard soil for example)? How does it compare to the tanks with torsion bars you used (Sabra and T-72)?
I’m not an expert for the subject since I mainly worked on the turret and fire control systems, we had a different branch for manoeuvrability and power train subjects. But I never had a problem with the suspension and the tank performed well in all types of terrain I’ve encountered. The ride was pretty smooth, the gun didn’t jump too much, and maintenance was quite easy.
The torsion bars on the Magach variants (M48/60 in general) were considered highly susceptible to breakdowns and changing/adjusting them was very tough. The spring coil allowed for more clearance beneath the tank and/or more space inside of it.
from the little experience I had on the T-72, it felt very unstable and shaky, although it was quick. When the tank started to move it leaned backwards and then jumped forward (might be a driver issue), it felt very unsafe compared to the Merkava.
12. Did you ever carry soldiers in the rear compartment when training or in missions?
Yes! Although, unlike the common notion, the back corridor wasn’t meant for infantry transportation since most of the space in the back is filled with ammo, on certain combat scenarios it was used to accommodate infantry. When I was operating in the Palestinian city of Nablus, we took out the ammo behind the commander position and had 2-3 soldiers in the back that accompanied us in various tasks. One of them was laying with his gun pointing outside from the corridor hatch (it was left open with a small crack) so he could provide protection against incoming threats coming from the back – which is a blind spot in these confined city streets.
13. What is your opinion on having the engine in the front. Does it make the maintenance more difficult?
It didn’t bother having the engine in the front in terms of maintenance, nor in and any way I can think of. Replacing the engine if needed was quick and easy. And the added value in protection was worth any shortcoming one can find. In the IDF, crew preservation and the life of soldiers in general is top priority since the army is small, trained crews are valuable and the public is not able to sustain a high casualty war. Knowing that the Merkava was built around its crew wellbeing and life made us trust the machine and love it and whoever designed it.
14. Did the Merkava weight limit operations (bridges or other infrastructure)?
Not that I know of.
There are no major rivers where we were expected to fight, the ones there are weren’t a problem for the tank to go through without a bridge, even if an AVLB was needed, the bridge layers in the IDF inventory was suitable for the Merkava.
15. What was the maximum distance you covered in a day during deployments or exercises? Did the tank cope well or needed extra maintenance?
The ranges in Israel are not too long, and when the tanks are needed somewhere they are moved on tank trailers. But we had some occasions where we drove all day, if there was fuel, we were fine. No major maintenance was needed usually, just the usual after movement check-up, we did after each ride including maybe hammering back track pins that might needed to be put back in place, some oil and grease, nothing unusual. On the mk1 on the other hand, a lot of them used to break down on the way from base to the field, depending on how long it has been since they got out of dry storage to be used for training (they were not used for combat in any front at that time)
16. Did you have the opportunity to train with other Armies? What were your impressions? Did you like/dislike any specific equipment?
Sadly, I’ve ever had such an opportunity.
17. Merkava tanks have not been exported, even if some countries were interested (Singapore, Colombia...). Did you ever hear about any interested countries?
I can’t tell you anything official, just rumours I’ve heard, it is usually kept as a secret - I know Singapore were interested, but I don’t know if they bought any, there was some talks about them getting a deal to have tanks delivered to them in case of emergency, but I can’t say for sure.
I’ve also heard the Mexicans bought 2 Mk 1s.
The Sabra tank developed for the Turkish is pretty much an Merkava mk4 built around an M-60 in terms of armor and systems.
18. At some stages the Israel Army has considered replacing Merkava with M1 Abrams. What is your opinion on this possible replacement?
Having an indigenous tank in Israel, or any local design and manufacture means is a good decision in my eyes. Israel learnt that it can always rely on the goodness of strangers, and it must support and defend itself. The world response in the Ukrainian situation made this even more clear for some Israelis. that was the thinking when the Merkava project first came into Gen. Israel Tal’s mind and sadly it’s still true.
Aside from that, the Abrams in the testing made here had trouble in different places that the Merkava excel – Its jet engine had trouble in the powder like sand in the south and the Merkava performed better on the Golan height boulders.
The Abarms is a great and proven design, but the Merkava is perfectly sewn for Israeli needs and having it is great for the moral of its soldiers and the strength of its military industries. So, I’m happy the project still going on.
Section on M60 Sabra and T-72
19. What was your first impression of the M60T? How did it compare to the Merkava variants you used before?
The Sabra was like a downgraded Merkava Mk 4 built into the M60, it has up to date fire control system and sights and an upgraded armor package. I’m not sure if the engine was replaced but the major downsides compared to the merkava was its torsion bar system that was difficult to maintain.
20. M60s are famous for its large internal space but high silhouette. Do you think it was a good trade off? Was it noticeably more comfortable than Merkava?
I don’t remember it to have a bigger silhouette than the Merkava Mk 4 , which is quite tall but the merkava is more streamlined which make it better at hiding in terrain hull down.
I dont recall the room on the inside being larger than the mrkava, at least not more than the Mk 4 and 3 that was more comfortable than the Mk 1 and 2 due to the lack of hydraulic pipes attached to the turret walls and ceiling.
21. How did the suspensions compare? Do you think torsion bars are less exposed to AT missiles/projectiles but more vulnerable to IEDs?
Can’t really answer about the vulnerability of it, but in general the merkava was better equipped for dealing with these threats, especially with the added hull armor fitted to the earlier models like the 2D and the 3D.
22. M60T basically received a Merkava Mk 4 FCS. Was there any limitation in the technology that was integrated? Was it downgraded like Soviet/US tanks sold abroad?
I don’t know exactly what’s the difference because my time on it was limited, but I doubt the system would be as good as the merkava system. Israel would never export its best systems as far as I know.
23. How do they compare as shooting platforms?
I don’t have an answer to that.
24. Do you know if any other country got interested in the upgrade?
I doht know, to my knowledge this was a joint venture for Israeli Military Industries and the Turkish
25. Do you think the M60 has more room to upgrade or the T variant is a good finishing point?
Any tank, as a weapon platform has room to upgrade. I think the sabra project is more like a fresh start for this aging platform by moving it from the analog to the digital world.
26. What was your impression of the T-72? How did it compare to the Merkava variants and M60T you used before?
As I said in the original interview, I found the T-72 to be unsafe,uncomfortable and outdated compared to the tanks it was facing at the time and by far by compared to contemporary ranks it might face in the future.
27. Do you think the lower height and silhouette is worth the crew constraint?
I think the turret space is way too small and I can’t imagine how it would feel like being cramped in there for longer durations. I don’t think the short silhouette is that significant in today’s battlefields.
28. Can you describe the upgrade? Was there any system from the original vehicle left (stabilizer)?
I’m not entirely sure what the actual upgrade was supposed to be. if I recall the tank sights and stabilizer was to be replaced. To my knowledge Elbit systems never won that contract in the end.
29. What did you think of the autoloader? Did it work reliably? Did you have any reliability issues in general?
Haven’t had the chance to test it, but I think the placement of the ammo exposed on the turret bottom is a major downside in terms of vulnerability and having one less crew member is not that good for the tank and crew wellbeing.
30. T-72 was designed as a mobilization tank, which would have been built in huge quantities during a war. Did you get this impression?
It could definitely drive fast and seems like being cheap was a major consideration. I always prefer buying expensive hardware that would last longer and serve me better. I would certainly prefer not being inside a fighting vehicle that its designers preferred saving money instead of saving my life.
31. Did the internal volume limit the equipment that could be integrated?
It probably did. That said, another of the turret space is used by the mechanical fire control system, maybe when replaced with a digital on can make some room inside, but not much.
32. Soviet tanks are usually criticised for the ergonomics. How did you find them in T-72?
One word – terrible.
33.Did you carry out any mobility trials in different terrains? Were there any problems with torsion bars/filters/engine?
Haven’t had enough time on it to know. We mainly had a trail on concrete track with bumbs on the way, just to test the original stabilizer.
34. All Soviet tanks had a low reverse speed. Was this your impression for T-72? Do you think this is an issue in combat?
Guess it depends on the doctrine, if you expect your soldiers to always drive forward, I guess its OK. In most training scenarios I encountered you sometimes have to back up fast, for instance if you’re in a firing position and have to get down before being hit by an atgm, or just to switch positions.
I know that the Syrian used side firing positions, where the turret is facing in a 90 degree angle to the turret to be able to get down by moving forward. This is a very dangerous thing to do in a tank especially when all your ammo is in the center of the tank and with contemporary apfsds round being able to pierce through sand barriers.
35. Is there any anecdote you would like to share before we finish the interview?
A lot of times a call for putting the tanks behind in favor of other platforms is raised from time to time, but then some conflict start that prove it’s still needed in the battlefield.
After seeing the Russian invasion into Ukraine – the use of tanks in it and the casualties inflicted by the AT missiles, A threat the IDF met in the 2006 Lebanon war and made decision makers to budget the replacement of all IDF tanks to a Merkava Mk 4 with the trophy system incorporated on it – a decision that already saved lives in recent conflicts where countless ATGMS were fired on IDF tanks were intercepted by the system.
Also, the addition of battle management systems made joint ops natural, it was amazing to see minimal blue on blue casualties in recent large operations in tight urban environments.
All that teach us that the tank as a platform is not obsolete and will continue to adjust and evolve to meet current needs. The Merkava Mk 5 is now being talked about especially in light of the conflict in eastern Europe it is said to include 360 cameras that will improve situational awareness of the crew, among other improvements – the days of the tank is certainly not over.
I am always looking for more
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