The head of the Israeli Ministry of Defense’s International Defense Cooperation Directorate, Yair Kulas, revealed on June 15 that the country was in very active talks with two countries over possible acquisitions of Merkava battle tanks from Israeli reserves.
There are two potential countries with which we are holding advanced negotiations. But one is on the European continent, with other Israeli sources indicating that older Merkava III and Merkava II models from the 1980’s expected to be the variants on offer.
Up to 200 tanks are reportedly being discussed for transfer to the Ukraine alone.
The Merkava III remains the most numerous variant with close to 800 having been produced, where numbers of the newer Merkava IV are close to half this.
The Merkava IV variant began to enter service in 2005, although just a month later the class took significant losses alongside the older Merkava III model during a failed Israeli assault on the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.
The Islamic freedom fighters made effective use of anti armor assets, including Russian Kornet missiles, to penetrate over two dozen tanks according to multiple reports.
The unnamed European country in question reportedly shown interest in acquiring the vehicles due to Israel’s ability to make very quickly deliveries from its large reserves.
This is particularly important amid failing counter attacks against Russian defenses and due to the fact that growing numbers of countries on the continent are depleting their tank stocks to transfer their vehicles to Ukraine.
As observed by Yair Kulas: There is a potential of several hundred million shekels there. The world is chasing systems, and production processes require time, and not everyone has the time to wait.
Preceding Israel, South Korea was a leading beneficiary of this trend due to the unrivaled speed among producers of NATO compatible that it could deliver its latest K2 vehicles.
The Merkava first joined the Israeli Army in 1979, the same year as the German Leopard 2 entered service and a year before the American M1 Abrams, with development having been made a priority due to the perceived under-performance of American M60 tanks.
The M1 Abrams was the most capable tank in the Western world at the time, operating against Soviet armor during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
The Merkava bridged a number of key performance gaps with the latest generations of Soviet armor at the time, including critically use of a smooth-bore gun – where preceding Western tanks had used rifled guns and been around two decades behind the Soviet Union in moving past this technology.
The Merkava was still initially outgunned, as observed in the Lebanon War, against newer Soviet tanks such as the T-72 operated by Syria, leading Syrian leaders to express considerable confidence in the new Soviet vehicle’s design.
The T-72 simultaneously operated by neighboring Iraq proved capable of gaining overwhelming victories against the latest Western armor.
This arguably vindicated Israel’s decision to pursue its own more advanced tank rather than relying on Western imports, although initial high expectations for exports were never realized.
Improvements to the Merkava over time emphasized armored protection and improved city fighting capabilities, reflecting the requirements of occupying large parts of Southern Lebanon during the 1980’s, with one unusual feature being the integration of a mortar.
The design could be easily modified to serve as an armored personnel carrier, and notably had an engine situated in the front to provide further protection for crew.
The Merkava has failed to gain traction on export markets for the past 44 years, and although Turkey was previously considered a leading potential client and showed a strong interest in the design.
But, Turkey ultimately selected the more modern South Korean K2 tank to form its new generation of armor – with the Korean vehicle set to enter production in Turkey under license with some modifications as the Altay tank.
As Israel has some of the largest reserves of post-1970’s NATO compatible tanks, gives the Merkava an advantage over most competing vehicles due to the speed at which deliveries can be made, which could compensate for other factors that made it less attractive over the preceding four decades.
Some sources have speculated that Ukraine could be the unnamed European client for the Israeli tanks, while others have noted that a third party could be acquiring the vehicles with the specific intention of transferring the to Ukraine – avoiding Israel’s opposition to arming Ukraine directly.
Spain, which has shown a particularly strong willingness to export its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, is among the other leading possible candidates.
There is a high possibility that major exports of Merkava tanks will lead Israel to expand production of the class significantly, both to rebuild its reserves with more modern vehicles and to have a stock of the latest variants in case further NATO demand emerges to be met.
Alongside South Korea and the United States, Israel has positioned its defense sector to be a leading beneficiary of Europe’s surge in demand for new armaments as tensions with Russia are expected to remain high for years into the future.
Military Watch Magazine / ABC Flash Point News 2023.