After 40 years of service with the Israel Defence Forces, one of Israel’s defining symbols is being exported to Europe for the first time. It is anticipated that the Israeli-made Merkava tanks will soon be sold to two foreign armies, reaching Europe and continuing to serve despite their advanced age.
The US Department of Defence is anticipated to shortly approve Israel’s sale of hundreds of decommissioned Merkava Mk 2 (equipped with a 105 mm gun) and Mk 3 tanks to two foreign countries, one of which is in Europe. Merkava tanks will be delivered to a European country for the first time.
Due to the sensitivity of the process, the Israeli Ministry of Defence does not disclose the names of the two countries that have agreed to purchase over 200 retired Israeli tanks available, but the contracts are on the verge of finalisation and are expected to be finalised within three months. Some of the tanks’ technical parts, including the engine, are manufactured in the United States; therefore, the Israeli Ministry of Defence told the Israeli news outlet Ynet that they need approval from the United States Department of Defence in Washington before the deal can go through.
The deal’s total cost is estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars. This money will go into the state treasury and most likely go straight to the Israeli military.
It appears that the Merkava Mk 2 tanks, which have been in service since the 1980s, and the Merkava Mk 3 tanks, introduced in the 1990s and primarily utilised by the 188th Armoured Brigade, will be purchased under two different contracts. All three regular armoured brigades of the Israeli army, the 401st, 188th, and 7th brigades, have transitioned to using modern Merkava Mk 4 tanks (with Trophy active protection systems against anti-tank missiles and networked management and information exchange systems) in recent years.
Some older tanks, especially those of lesser age, have been moved to reserve units, like the 10th brigade. But more than 200 tanks that are no longer in use are still in repair bases of the Israeli Defence Forces. At first, the Israeli defence establishment didn’t think it would be a good idea to sell them to other forces and thought about giving them to private contractors to get rid of. But Russia and Ukraine went to war last year, which changed what European countries needed to protect themselves. Foreign buyers first showed interest in used Merkava tanks around the middle of last year. The Israeli Ministry of Defence started checking the state of the old tanks and found that they were in good enough shape to sell.
Representatives of the Israeli Ministry of Defence explained that tank production as a serial product is a complex and lengthy process that can take up to two years and cost a great deal of money, while at the same time, there are tanks stored in open or hangar storage that are tested and ready for operation the following morning. According to other sources, Europe is engaged in an arms race on a magnitude not seen since World War II. The Israeli Ministry of Defence recently announced record-breaking global sales of Israeli weapons, amounting to approximately $12.5 billion in 2022, referring to the value of newly concluded contracts.
It should be noted that hundreds of M113 armoured personnel carriers remain in the depots of the Israeli Defence Forces, despite their decommissioning in recent years owing to the introduction of Namer and Eitan armoured personnel carriers, primarily in regular brigades. However, at this time, there is no foreign demand for these M113 APCs, which are susceptible to anti-tank fire. In recent years, Israel has also successfully advanced the transfer of decommissioned F-16 aircraft from the Israeli Air Force to the armed forces of Croatia, despite opposition from the United States. Representatives of the Israeli Ministry of Defence stated that selling surplus military equipment is difficult but that Israel endeavours to make them appealing and maximise their lifespan.
For obvious reasons, Ukraine leads the list of potential “mystery shopper” candidates in Europe for Israeli Merkava Mk 3 tanks from storage. During the ongoing counteroffensive against Russian forces, it is probable that the Leopard 1 and 2 tanks, in addition to the British Challenger 2s available to its army, will suffer significant losses. However, the sale could have political downsides as Israel does not want to anger Russia due to its Syrian situation. One theory is that once Israel exports its Merkava main combat tanks to other countries, the buyer can legally provide them to Ukraine.
Other nations of the Old Continent desire to renew their battle tank fleets despite having limited resources. This is the situation with Bulgaria and its T-72 tanks. Or that of the Republic of Cyprus, where AMX-30s are still in service. Croatia also cannot be ruled out.
If Cyprus or Croatia were to acquire them, it would raise the possibility of transferring tanks of “Soviet origin” [T-80U and M-84 (T-72 variant), respectively] currently in service with the armies of these countries to Ukraine.
In recent years, there have been repeated speculations that Israel could export Merkava tanks, but no actual exports have occurred. In 2012, Colombia and Israel negotiated the sale of Merkava Mk 4 tanks, but according to multiple sources, the United States prohibited the sale. Singapore was rumoured to have inked a contract in 2014 to deliver 50 newly manufactured Merkava Mk 4 tanks for $ 4 million each, but no deliveries were made. Two bridge-layer tanks based on the Merkava chassis were manufactured and delivered to the Philippine military in July 2022.