Israel starts delivering the 5th Gen Merkava Barak tank to its armoured units

Paolo Valpolini

On September 19th 2023, short before the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War that will fall on October 6th, the Israeli Ministry of Defence introduced the new generation main battle tank, the Merkava Barak, for lighting, the first 5th generation tanks are being introduced into service in the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) armoured units

After five years of development carried out by the Israel Ministry of Defence Tank and APC Directorate, the Land Forces HQ, the Armoured Corps and the 401st “Iron Tracks” Armoured Brigade, in cooperation with severalmajor defence contractors among which Elbit Systems, Rafael, IAI/Elta, the fifth generation of the Merkava main battle tanks has been unveiled.

From the outside the new Merkava Barak looks very similar to the previous Merkava 4, the chassis, engine, automotive elements and most of the armour remaining mostly unchanged. The true revolution being mostly in sensors, electronics and software, Artificial Intelligence (AI) being at the core of many of the key improvements..

Elbit Systems is fully involved in the new C4I and situational awareness. To get into as much detail as possible, many remain of course classified for obvious opsec reasons, EDR On-Line spoke to Idan Tavor, the company VP for Advanced Combat Vehicle Systems.

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“The Barak is all based on lessons learned from existing Merkava MBTs, as we learned and understood what we should change according to the latest technology available,” he explains, adding that the new tank “has wholly new performances in terms of situational awareness, lethality and mind control.

A first major improvement came from sights; the commander got a new panoramic sight while the gunner’s sight is also brand new, Idan Tavor underlining that these are one or even more generation ahead of previous ones. Improvements came in electro-optic performances, which provide better imaging, “but the main step forward is that they have integrated AI into those sight that have now autonomous behaviours, and are capable to identify targets and objects by themselves.”

The Fire Control System (FCS) has also been entirely upgraded. “The new version is faster and has better performances,” we were told, adding that the Merkava Barak is able to shoot on the move, day and night, with increased accuracy. Human-machine interface has also be completely reviews, adapting it to the young conscripts experience, multi-touchscreens with smartphone-like interface being now adopted. “We worked on it pretty hard for the last two years in order to make it very approachable for young soldiers who are used to their cell phones and playstations and now need to fight in a tank and we developed for them a very nice and new HMI.”

The Merkava Barak is fitted with a software that integrates and fuses all data coming from all on-board sensors, and is connected to the TORCH, the Israel Land Forces battle management system (BMS).

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“But the very unique feature that we brought to this tank is the Iron Vision, which exploits the 360° camera system to provide the commander day and night helmet system.” The commander is able to see both inside and outside EDR On-Line understood, as well as AI generated symbols, but according to the company the feeling is fully different from that of virtual reality gaming. As all data are available via the backbone software the commander can get all information needed with a click of its controller, and can also bring a point of interest to the attention of another crew member very easily and quickly.

The capacity to pick-up targets and identify them on the 360° at any time cannot be compared with the traditional human scanning of the battlefield, which was limited in time and field of view. Not only, the IA-based algorithms can classify those targets and prioritise automatically those considered of interest. Of course should one of them be assigned for action, positive identification would be confirmed by the commander or gunner, the man-in-the-loop concept remaining mandatory. As some may be picked up y more than one sensor, the fusion system allows avoiding duplications, Idan Tavor explains.

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While AI means a complete revolution in the target acquisition and identification process, the same is not true in the reaction phase. Here the advantage given to its crew by the Merkava Barak is that things are presented to them in a simpler and clearer way, making the task easier. “It’s a matter of cognitive burden, of how much information a human being can receive and understand and that’s where the algorithms that manage the views provided to the crew are working,” the Elbit Systems representative underlined. This might well shorten the reaction time, but certainly not in the dramatic way it is done in the acquisition phase.

Asked about collaborative combat, Idan Tavor avoided elaborating on capabilities but referred to technology. With the TORCH C4I system the possibility of distributing information through the unit already existed. What changes consistently with the new tank is the level and amount of information that can be shared, considering the huge amount of sensors producing them. These are then fused, prioritized, classified etc, thanks to purposely developed algorithms, before being automatically shared on the network, allowing to optimise the flow, communications being the critical element of the network, as too often they become the bottleneck of networked systems. Dealing with the amount of data available in the Merkava Barak requires a much higher throughput , however not only the latest SDR radios have been installed in the new tank but systems adopted are more sophisticated, allowing to allocate more bandwidth to devices or to vehicles which are identified as the ones that contribute more than others to the data flow.

A few questions remained unanswered due to sensitivity, those concerning electronic warfare and the defence against drones and loitering munitions being among them. Elbit Systems is not only involved in electronics, as it is also providing the 120 mm gun as well as part of the survivability solutions, having finalised the acquisition of Israel Military Industries in late 2018.

Remaining in the survivability domain, a key role against kinetic threats is played by the active protection system installed on the Merkava Barak. The IDF MANTAK, the Merkava Tank Office, confirmed the Rafael’s Trophy as the APS of choice for the latest iteration of the Merkava, the same system having already be integrated on the Merkava 4.

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EDR On-Line spoke with Niv Cohen, Rafael’s VP and Head of the Manoeuvrable Systems Directorate. He too could not get into the specific systems capabilities of what has been defined as “improved Trophy” but underlined that together with MANTAK the company worked to include the system sensors to improve the tank crew situational awareness. Beside identifying, classifying and prioritising incoming threats that can be deal with by the Trophy in its active protection role, sensors are therefore exploited to acquire also those targets that are not considered by the Trophy itself but that contribute to form the wider awareness picture provided to the crew. It is unclear if the first Barak are fitted with the so-called “Silent Mode” that adds Othello optronic sensors to the system radars, providing a further 360° coverage system. Introduced at IAV 2023, EDR On-Line understood that this version, allowing a reduced EM signature, radars being activated by the E/O sensors only when needed, is already in service with the IDF. How much the optronics have been integrated in order to avoid duplications remains unclear. “The Trophy allows to have a wide picture of the battlefield, as its sensors can pick-up enemy and friendly forces, as well as threats of different kinds including drones,” Niv Cohen explained, highlighting how this enhances awareness. Compared to existing systems already installed on the Namer and the Merkava 4, the Trophy adopted on the Merkava Barak provides a greater amount of data, an IR sensor having also been installed EDR On-Line understood.

Asked on the Trophy capacity to react to new types of threat, the Rafael representative underlined that the company is issuing a new software release nearly every single year, which adds or improves capabilities. He also added that the newest version of the system is designed to counter all current threats and is prepared to cope with future ones. The C-UAS capacity falls in this spiral improvement path, tests having already been carried out, the top-attack defence capability being among the requirements of the UK contract. No information on its adoption by Israel was provided, albeit it would sound strange that the nation from which the system originates would not deploy the most complete solution of the Trophy.

As last add-on, when the Merkava Barak programme started, five years ago, the MoD let out the information that Rafael’s Fire Weaver AI-based networked sensor-to-shooter system would be part of the project. Nobody mentioned it nowadays, so the doubt remains about its presence on board the fifth generation Israeli MBT.

The first Merkava Barak have been handed over to the 52nd “Ha-Bok’im” (the Breachers) Armoured Battalion, one of the three such units forming the 401st “Ikvot HaBarzel” (Iron Tracks) Brigade together with a armoured engineer battalion a reconnaissance and a signal company. Until now the 401 armoured battalions were all equipped with Merkava Mk.4 MBTs. As underlined by the Brigade commander, his formation, as well as the upper level, invested a lot in the last year to learn how to exploit at best the new capabilities. Although many of those were certainly tested in battle labs at the beginning of the programme, the new Israeli MBT is now a reality, and TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures) will take some time to stabilise while new applications will be highlighted during exercises at different levels, and in different scenarios, from symmetric to asymmetric, from open ground to urban terrain. Although very similar externally to its predecessor the Merkava Barak is expected to mark a quantum jump in the operational capabilities of the Israeli armoured force, and overall of the Israeli armed forces.

Photos courtesy Israel Defence Ministry and Israel Defence Forces, Elbit Systems and Rafael