Merkava….for Ukraine?

June 19, 2023

After being around for forty odd years or so it appears that the Israeli Merkava main battle tank is about to achieve its first export – well, official export certainly. In a recent interview the head of SIBAT, the Israeli Ministry of Defence’s International Defense Cooperation Directorate, said that advanced discussions were taking place with two potential buyers to purchase Merkava’s from Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) stockpiles. And though the actual countries involved have not been revealed, one is apparently in Europe.

The Merkava first entered service with the IDF in 1979 and has undergone continuous development ever since, becoming a vastly more formidable fighting machine as battlefield experience has shaped the tank over the decades. Renowned for its unique design, which places the engine in the front of the vehicle as opposed to every other tank in service, the Merkava has long been put forward as the best tank in service on the planet. This is a simplistic argument, though there is no denying that the Israeli’s, with generations of armored warfare experience, have tailored the tank to their own particular requirements.

Indeed, this year the IDF are taking delivery of the Merkava Mk.V which is almost certainly the most sophisticated MBT in the field today, mainly because of its integration of the Iron Vision augmented reality visual system, which allows crew member to “see” through the tank in any direction.

Though the new prospective clients are not going to be getting Mk.V’s – at least, I would be literally amazed if they did –  the acquisition means that the IDF tank fleet is going to be freeing up older Merkava Mk.IIs and probably Mk.IIIs from their reserve stocks, and it is likely these that are going to be sold on.

The Mk.IIs are the oldest remaining versions of the Merkava still serving, and it is possible that most have already been converted to other uses, but they still represent a capable platform in their original tank form despite their age.

Equipped with a 105mm gun, the Mk.II’s first entered service in 1983 and were a product of the IDF’s experience from fighting in built up areas in the 1982 Lebanon War.

It was followed in 1989 by the Mk.III, which added improved engine, armour and firepower in the shape of a 120mm cannon.

These still form the majority of the Merkava’s built, and likely will be the model exported as there are now several hundreds in reserve status that will become surplus to requirement once the Mk.V gets to the IDF’s prime armoured units. Despite its age the MK.III is an extremely competent and formidable tank and certainly could hold its own on the battlefield today.

Which all leads to the musings on who is talking about buying and why. Much of the speculation has been that the recipient may be Ukraine, or indeed another nation that is buying them on behalf of Ukraine as military aid and intends to hand them over to that country, with both Denmark and the Netherlands being referenced.

After all, Ukraine has quite a need for any tank it can get its hands on right now. And considering the Ukrainian military’s tank park consists of examples of practically every major MBT type built since 1960, adding the Merkava wouldn’t be entirely surprising, even if it meant a further collapse in the mental state of the Ukrainian logistic corps from adding yet more types to their battle line.

But to be honest it seems more likely that the unspecified parties are more interested in replacing the tanks they have already sent to Ukraine or else freeing up stocks of existing models that they have in service themselves, likely legacy Soviet types like the T-72 or else Leopard IIs. Both of these tanks represent significant proportions of the numbers of tanks that have been sent to Ukraine as part of military aid packages from European nations already and so switching them out of service for Merkava’s probably makes sense.

Plus, while the talk is about which European nation may be the prospective purchaser, no one really is thinking about the other potential customer that the Israeli’s have mentioned. If the Israelis are happy for a direct transfer of Merkava’s to Ukraine, perhaps the United States is planning to purchase a batch, which it can package together with the European contribution.

But I am not so sure that they are, as though the Israeli’s have said they will now sell weapons for use by the Ukrainian military, they have been leery about aggravating the Russians too much. With Merkava’s being so utterly distinctive, and nations supplying tanks to Ukraine tending to really draw ire from the Russians, it seems likely that the Israelis might not want the aggravation.

Mind you, it’s Israel, a nation quite famous for just going “meh, f**k it” when it comes to some issues, so maybe they aren’t too concerned.

But there are plenty of countries out there with good defence relations with Israel who operate old soviet tanks and Leopards. Chile for example, has long purchased Israeli military equipment, including armoured vehicles, and currently operates large numbers of both Leopard I and -II tanks that are also now operated by the Ukrainians. This is just an example, but it is conceivable that they would buy Merkava’s, allowing them to sell their Leopards on to other parties for use in Ukraine.

Because here is the thing – the war in Ukraine means that the international stocks of modern battle tanks are running out. For years nations looking to update their tank fleets could buy either cheaper Russian models, or from the vast postwar stockpiles. And those are now pretty much gone.

Plus, with many countries winding down their tank factories, newbuilds are expensive and slow to acquire – not great when the need for them is immediate, and this explains why the IDFs stock of war ready Merkava’s is now on the menu; no one else really has stocks available.

So, watch this space, because though I suspect we won’t see Merkava’s on the battlefields of Ukraine, I have been wrong plenty of times before on this conflict. But I will say that if there is one lesson to be drawn from this situation it’s that perhaps other nations should learn from Israel’s example of “Better to have an MBT and not need it as to needing an MBT and not having it.”


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