Turkey, Croatia, or Ukraine – who is the hidden Merkava tank buyer?

There are indications from Israel of a potential deal involving their exclusive Merkava main battle tank. The Israeli government is in talks with two undisclosed nations about the tank’s first international sales. The only known detail about these potential buyers is that one is from Europe. This has led to speculation, including the possibility of Ukraine being the buyer.

Merkava 5 is coming - hard-kill APS, helmets similar to F-35's pilot
Photo credit: Flicr

Yair Kulas, leader of SIBAT – the International Defense Cooperation Directorate of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, recently shared details about potential international sales of the Merkava tanks with the Calcalist newspaper. SIBAT handles the sale of weapon systems and other military hardware from the Israel Defense Forces [IDF]. 

Kulas mentioned that they are in advanced negotiations with two countries for the Merkava tanks, according to a translation of his interview published by The Times of Israel. He hinted that one of the countries is in Europe, but did not disclose their names.

Kulas didn’t specify which Merkava models are available, but the IDF primarily uses the Mk 4 model according to The Times of Israel. This suggests that the older Mk 3s may be available, and possibly the recently retired Mk 2s. 

At least five Israeli Merkava tanks were abandoned on the Golan Heights
Photo credit: National Interest

The Merkava, which means ‘chariot’ in Hebrew, was created after the Six-Day War in 1967 and showed a need for a better main battle tank. The development of this unique Israeli tank began in the early 1970s, with lessons from the Yom Kippur War in 1973 playing a key role.

The Merkava stands out from other main battle tanks due to its unique design. Its front-positioned engine and rear-positioned turret boost its defense. The Merkava is versatile, with a back compartment that can hold up to 10 soldiers in addition to its four-person crew. It can also be converted into an armored ambulance if needed.

Consider the Mk 1 variant, a 60-ton vehicle introduced in 1979. It could reach a top speed of 29 mph (46 kph) on roads, boasting a 105mm main gun and three 7.62x51mm machine guns, which could fire regular and LAHAT laser-guided anti-tank missiles. 

Besides its power, the tank also often contained a 60mm mortar in its rear section. The mortar could fire high-explosive rounds, providing indirect firing capabilities. It could also launch smoke rounds to protect the tank from enemies, and illumination rounds to light up the battlefield at night. The addition of the mortar is an interesting story, originating from the Israeli forces’ use of British-made Centurion tanks. These tanks had a 2-inch mortar inside the turret for launching smoke rounds. 

By 1983, the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] began receiving the upgraded Mk 2 variants. This new model featured upgrades like enhanced armor and powertrain parts. The highlight? The 60mm mortar was smartly relocated inside the turret, allowing the crew to fire from inside the hull. Truly a significant advancement in tank technology!

Turkey, Croatia, or Ukraine - who is the hidden Merkava tank buyer?
Photo credit: IDF

The Mk 2 Merkava tank evolved to include advanced thermal optics and more armor, enhancing its night warfare and durability. The Mk 2D version introduced a composite armor package with modular sections for easy replacement after damage. In 1989, the Mk 3 variant brought a 120mm main gun, a stronger engine, an improved drive train, and upgraded fire control and optics. This model is five tons heavier, but faster, reaching speeds of up to 37 miles per hour [60 kilometers per hour]. 

Continuing evolution led to several Mk 3 subvariants. These featured sensor upgrades and other improvements, reflecting the ongoing quest for perfection in armored warfare. The new Mk 4 boasts a powerful 120mm gun and a remodeled hull that accommodates a stronger engine. It also possesses advanced sensors, superior battle management, and data-sharing capabilities. 

Since 2009, the IDF has been equipping Mk 4 variants with the Trophy Active Protection System [APS] that shields the tanks from anti-tank guided missiles and other infantry anti-armour weapons. Furthermore, the Merkava lineage has led to field-ready derivatives like the Namer, a turretless heavy armored personnel carrier, and the Ofek command vehicle.

The Merkava tank’s capabilities have attracted several nations. These countries, in talks with Israel’s Ministry of Defense, are yet to be identified. Past indications of interest from Colombia and Turkey, as well as Singapore’s rumored purchase of Merkavas in the mid-2010s, are noteworthy. 

Intriguingly, the Philippines received two Merkava-derived Armored Vehicle Launched Bridges last year. This suggests the potential buyer could be a non-European country aiming to enhance its military with Merkava tanks.

SIBAT’s chief Kulas hints at a European country interested in the powerful Merkava tanks. Could it be Turkey, known for collaborating with Israel on defense programs including revamping old M60 tanks? Despite this, the fluctuating diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel, Turkey’s development of its own tank, the Altay, and its continuous M60 upgrades make it less probable.

Many European countries are potentially looking to upgrade their tanks, including those still using older Soviet models, such as Croatia with its T-72-based M-84A4 tanks. Croatia has previously engaged with Israel for military hardware, despite an unsuccessful attempt to purchase ex-Israeli F-16A/B Netz fighter jets. 

There are speculations about Ukraine being the mystery European country seeking new tanks, but no evidence supports this yet. It’s possible that another European country could acquire the Israeli tanks and later transfer them to Ukraine, which would affect the geopolitical situation.

The Ukrainian government is seeking advanced tanks, including British Challenger 2s and German Leopard 2s, for defense against Russia. U.S.-made Abrams tanks are also part of their strategy, but their arrival is months away. 

Britain is considering sending a dozen Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine
Photo credit: Army Technology

The Ukrainian military, heavily using armor in its counter-offensive, is experiencing considerable losses. The United States and other allies have pledged to continue supplying tanks and other armored vehicles to support Ukraine’s forces.

Israel is careful

In a recent interview, SIBAT’s chief, Kulas, highlighted the quick supply speed of Israel’s retired Merkavas. He said this makes them popular in the global market. He stated, “We live in a world where time is essential. Manufacturing can take time, and not everyone can afford to wait.”  

The Israeli government has been careful about providing military support to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February 2022. A policy change happened in March, but the authorities said sales would only be for “defensive” systems, like those against drone attacks.

Classified U.S. government documents appear online, suggesting a potential change in Israel’s position due to U.S. influence. Among circulating online photos is a Ukrainian soldier with an Israeli-made Spike anti-tank missile launcher. The context and authenticity of these images remain unclear. 

Kulas confirms ongoing Merkava sales negotiations but the outcome is uncertain. Will Israel secure its first foreign Merkava tank sales? Could Ukraine be a buyer? Time will tell.

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