Ever since the first British tanks rolled on the field of Flanders in 1916, nations across the globe have competed who will create a better-armored vehicle. Today, we take a look at two of the best main battle tanks found on the modern battlefield, American M1 Abrams, and Israeli Merkava IV.
Merkava tank was born after the Yom Kippur War, which saw massive tank losses on both sides. Israel lost more than 1,000 tanks and some 500 other armored vehicles, while the Arab nations fared even worse, with some 2,500 tanks destroyed. Israel high command has felt that such losses were unsustainable, despite the victory and had sought a new tank, one with heavier armor and better crew protection, able to go toe to toe with Russian tanks fielded by their opponent.
The man in charge of this project was General Israel Tal, a legend among Israeli tankmen. His design was named Merkava (Chariot) and featured some unique design solutions, like the front-mounted engine and an infantry compartment in the rear. The engine in the front is highly unusual for armored vehicles, but it is logical from the Israeli point of view. They needed a tank for mainly defensive assignment, hence the front-mounted engine only added to the crew protection. That is why Merkava Mk.1 is one of the slowest tanks in its generation, since the speed wasn’t deemed vital, but rather the ability to traverse the rocky terrain of the Golan Heights, which is why Merkava tank tracks and suspension were taken from the British Centurion tank, which served Israelis well during the Yom Kippur War.
With the engine in front, the rear of the tank was reserved for ammunition, packed in fireproof racks. Merkava could easily be transformed into armored personnel carriers by removing these racks, which cleared the space for 10 infantrymen. It also allowed IDF to evacuate its wounded under heavy enemy fire.
Merkava also features some unique weapon options. Mk I and Mk II had a 105 mm main gun, while later Mk III and IV carry more potent 120mm smoothbore cannon. All versions have four machine guns, two 7.62 mounted on the roof of the turret for the commander and loader, and a third one mounted co-axially with the main gun. Just above the mantle is M2 Browning 12.7 mm remote-controlled gun, which proved very valuable in asymmetric warfare Israel has been engaged in the last few decades. Another interesting weapon option is a 60 mm mortar, which allows the crew to assault targets which are hidden from view. This option proved very useful in many urban engagements.
American tank had a somewhat different history. Designed to replace aging M60 tanks, which was deemed unfit to counter new Russian designs, Abrams was one of the first third-generation MBTs in the world. It featured a revolutionary Chobham armor, which made it almost impervious to the T-72 and T-62 tanks, a fact Iraqi armored forces discovered the hard way during Gulf War. M1 Abrams is also heavier than Merkava tank, weighing 68 tonnes. The tanks excelled in desert warfare, where its combination of mobility, firepower, and protection proved lethal and unstoppable, but urban clashes of the Second Gulf War shown that this is not an ideal weapon. That is why an improvement suit called TUSK (Tank Urban Survival Kit).
Abrams also features a 120 mm main gun, designed by Rheinmetall and based on the gun used in Leopard tanks. It carries two or three machine guns, depending on the variant.
Both of these combat machines feature active measures in their latest installments. Merkava Mk IV carries Trophy active protection system, which is deemed as one of the best solutions currently on the market and the only one able to defeat even the most modern anti-tank missiles like Kornet, Konkurs, and RPG-29 Vampire. In fact, the system proved so good that the Americans are planning on purchasing it for at least one brigade of Abrams.
Although there aren’t really a chance of these two tanks going against each other, it is important to note that both of them are designed to fulfill their country’s respective needs and may not be directly comparable. These machines manage to fill their intended role successfully and that is the only thing one could ask from a modern weapon system.