The Philippine Army received two Merkava AVLB (Armored Vehicle-Launched Bridge) vehicles from Israeli firm Elbit. The two AVLBs cost $27 million and are needed because the army has spent $172 for thirty Israeli light tanks. Twenty of the tanks are 30 ton tracked vehicles while eight are 15-ton wheeled 8x8 vehicles based on an APC (Armored personnel carrier) that carry a crew of two plus twelve passengers. Both use the same turret, which contains a 105mm cannon and 12.7mm machine-gun as well as a modern fire control system that includes a thermal imager. There are also tracked vehicles based on the tank chassis, one is a command vehicle and the other is a tank recovery vehicle that can tow any of the new armored vehicles that have been damaged. The Merkava AVLB is based on the M1074 AVLB Elbit and an American firm developed for the U.S. Army based on an M1A1 tank chassis. Israeli forces use a similar, but locally produced, Merkava tank. Both AVLBs provide an 18-meter (57 foot) bridge that can be emplaced within minutes and carry vehicles weighing up to 6o tons.
Israeli forces don’t need AVLBs because the geography of Israel and potential adversaries don’t require it. The Philippines is a tropical nation with lots more rainfall and rivers. The Philippines is an island (or islands, over 7,000 of them) nation whose main threat is China. Until now the Philippines was the only nation in the region threatened by China that had no tanks. Israel doesn’t use light tanks but was able to develop the Sabrah, which won a Filipino contract for light tanks. The Philippines, like India and many other southeast Asian nations have found Israel to be a good source of affordable modern weapons and equipment. Israel is a major (number 10 worldwide) exporter of weapons and is the smallest nation in the world to design and build its own tanks. This was the result of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which took Israel by surprise and inflicted heavy losses before Israel counter-attacked and defeated Egypt and Syria and their larger number of modern Russian tanks. Israel carefully analyzes the results of each war it fights and makes changes to deal with problems encountered. The 1973 war prompted Israel to start designing and building its own tanks.
By 1979 the 61-ton Merkava entered service and 250 were built by 1983. That was the year the first of 580 62-ton Merkava 2s entered service. Production of Merkava 2 ended in 1989. The first two Merkava models were similar in design with both using a 105mm gun. The Merkava 2 had additional armor, a five percent more powerful 950 HP engine and a 20 percent higher top speed of 55 kilometers an hour. There were a lot of mechanical and electronic upgrades. By 1989 all the active-duty armored brigades had Merkavas and many of the reserve armored brigades as well.
Using lessons learned from the 1982 fighting in Lebanon, Israel developed a much improved 63.5-ton Merkava 3, which entered service in 1990. By 2002 680 Merkava 3s were built. The main improvements were a 120mm main gun and much more powerful engine that produced a 60-kilometers an hour top speed, faster acceleration and a more maneuverable and nimbler tank. All the armor was of a modern composite design. The Merkava 3 is still used, mainly by reserve armor brigades.
In 2003 the current model, the 65-ton Merkava 4 was introduced. So far 360 of these have been produced and most have already undergone several major upgrades. Merkava 4 has improved armor, a powerful engine and a top speed of 65 kilometers an hour. Merkava 4 is even more nimble and maneuverable than Merkava 3. So far 550 Merkava 4s have been built.
All Merkavas feature a unique design feature; the engine is in the front. This adds more protection for the four-man crew and any passengers in the large rear compartment. That compartment can hold more 120mm shells or other supplies or up to eight passengers. Usually six infantrymen are carried, providing Merkava with its own infantry support. This is especially useful in built-up areas.
As good as the Merkava is, there have been no export customers. The Philippines is the sole exception and is not buying the Merkava tank but two AVLBs based on it. One difficulty with export orders is that Israel builds the Merkava itself and cannot afford large production facilities. Moreover, many key components come from the United States, which gives the Americans a veto power over who exports go to. Merkava is also is very expensive, with the most modern Merkava 4 costing over $5 million each.
Israel cannot afford to keep all its Merkavas in service. Currently 220 of 550 Merkava 4s are in storage, while only 160 of 730 Merkava 3s are in use, the rest in storage. There are still 370 Merkava 2s available, but all are in storage. If there is a major war, the stored Merkavas can be ready for combat in a few days, or less. These storage tanks would be used to replace tanks out of action for combat or non-combat reasons. Because the Merkava is designed to reduce crew casualties, most of the crews of damaged or destroyed tanks are available for duty within hours. While storage tanks don’t get many of the upgrades, the basic controls of Merkava were kept the same or similar from one model to another to make it easy for crewmen who started out in a Merkava 4 could operate in a Merkava taken out of storage.