Staff Writer (Updated: 6/13/2016):
As with any combat system, technology and tactics would often go on to supercede battlefield usefulness. Prior foreign-made MBTs were eventually converted to inglorious roles such as that of engineering vehicles, bridgelayers, minesweepers and the like. Another key offshoot ultimately became the Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) of which many were born from T-54, T-55 and Centurion battle tanks. With the introduction of the Merkava Mk II series of 1983, the Merkava Mk I marks were more or less on their way out. Some 580 Mk II systems would be produced to the Mk I total of just 250 vehicles and the Mk III series would follow in 1990 prior to the penultimate variant - the Merkava Mk IV of 2004. With many discontinued Mk I tanks in inventory, thought was now given to modifying the existing chassis to fit the need of a new indigenous Israeli Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) developed specifically to suit Israeli Army requirements - a quality that many foreign-made IFVs lacked. Development began in the 1990s and proved a rather disappointing protracted affair mainly due to a lack of funding. As it stood, the Israeli Army did, indeed, maintain a large stable of competent armored personnel carriers - some modified and others dedicated purpose-designed systems of foreign origin - already in inventory including the long-running American M113 series.
In 2004, battles sprung up between Palestinian militants of Hamas/Islamic Jihad PRC and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Militants targeted Negev and Sderot with rockets and Israel responded with air attacks that preceded the ground assault to root out enemy emplacements. Israeli armor went to work across several campaigns which yielded mixed results as militants operated with automatic weapons, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rocket-propelled grenades, support machine guns and mortars through a guerilla-style method of warfare that, at times, caught Israeli vehicles unawares. The conflict specifically served as a testament to the aged nature of the M113 as it proved exceedingly vulnerable to all manner of explosive-minded attacks prompting the IDF to seek solutions for the long-term. The M113 was a popular armored personnel carrier with some 80,000 units produced but it presented a technological limitations - its origins running back to the 1950s. The battlefields of 2004 was a very different place than that of the M113's initial involvement during the Vietnam War with the US Army.
Key differences also lay in the concept of IFVs versus APCs. The former was always intended for direct combat roles in support of infantry and thusly armed as such - some even with anti-tank capabilities - but all forms manage larger-caliber weaponry with limited passenger seating within. APCs were generally designed to insert and extract infantry with protection provided by other elements and, as such, they could carry more troops but were generally less-armored and armed for the sustained fire role. The modern battlefield requires the use of IFVs to augment the actions of both combat tanks and infantry forces alike.
A definitive move was now made to produce the infantry fighting vehicle that the IDF required. Decommissioned Merkava Mk I series tank chassis would serve as the basis for the design to both expedite development and keep costs in check. The turret assembly was completely removed to make way for an expanded fighting compartment and passenger cabin. The running gear of the tank was retained on the whole for its proven robustness and versatility in the operating environment the Israelu Army had experience with. A new hull superstructure, slightly taller than that of the Merkava hull roof, was added and this featured sloped front and side facings for basic ballistics protection. The Merkava's front-mounted engine placement was also retained and this served as additional forward protection for the crew along one of the most critical facings on a combat vehicle. The driver maintained his front-left hull position. The hull roof was flat to accommodate a pair of access hatches, one for the vehicle commander and the other for the dedicated weapons specialist. Side skirt armor protected the delicate upper running gear and track sections. The drive sprocket was held at the front with the track idler at the rear and road wheels numbering six per track side. A remote-controlled, multi-faceted weapons station was added to the right side of the hull roof. The weapons package was developed around the Rafael Overhead Weapon Station and could accept a 12.mm Browning M2 heavy machine gun or a standard 7.62mm General Purpose Machine Gun. Vision blocks at each station allowed vantage points from within the vehicle for key members of the crew. Overall, the new Israeli design was becoming a capable IFV endeavor with a proven combat pedigree and capability to deliver and extract passengers under relative protection in all manner of environments. The first prototype was delivered for formal evaluation in February of 2005.
In 2006 the Israelis were embroiled in another local conflict, this time against neighboring Lebanon during July and August. The month-long initiative was largely against the forces of Hezbollah and once again was stirred by rocket attacks from militants. The Israeli Army was pressed into service once more and the need for a capable IFV was still apparent until the United Nations stepped in to ink a new ceasefire between the parties. Development and evaluation of the new Israeli IFV continued undeterred to which, by this point, the design was now being built upon the chassis of the new Merkava Mk IV Main Battle Tank series. The original Raphael weapon station was dropped in favor of the new Samson Remote Controlled Weapon Station (RCWS). The rear compartment door of the Merkava Mk IV MBT was enlarged for quicker insertion/extraction of infantry. The standard crew included three personnel made up of the driver, commander and gunner while seating for nine combat-ready infantry was provided for in the rear-set cabin. The fighting compartment dominated the center of the vehicle with the commander to the left hull side and the weapon station to the right front side. A prototype was delivered for review in March of 2008. The system was eventually adopted for frontline service in the Israeli Army that same year under the name of "Nemmera" which, when translated from the native Hebrew, became "Leopardess". However, the name was later revised to "Namer" to become the male-form "Leopard".
Production of the Namer has been ongoing since 2008 to which some 60 units have been produced as of this writing (2012). Additional manufacturing services are being provided by US firms. The selected engine is the American-made Teledyne Continental AVDS-1790-9AR series V12 diesel-fueled, air-cooled, turbocharged engine of 1,200 horsepower. Maximum road speed is approximately 40 miles per hour with an operational range of 310 miles. The chassis is suspended on a helical spring suspension system.
As completed, the Namer can mount a 12.7mm Browning M2 heavy machine gun or a 40mm Mk 19 automatic, belt-fed grenade launcher. Additional armament includes use of a 7.62mm Fabrique-National FN MAG series General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) at the commander's cupola. There is also provision for a 60mm field mortar which provides an indirect, high-explosive "punch" against embedded targets. All weapons serve the role of support fire well, intended to suppress the enemy and assist in overtaking positions through calculated actions involving infantry. Regardless of armament, the crew can operate and reload the weapons at the RCWS from within the safety of the vehicle - the value inherent in a remote-controlled weapon installtion. Twelve smoke grenade dischargers (in two separate banks of six dischargers) are added to the rear hull sides for offensive and defensive screening.
While the reach of the Namer is limited at this time, it presents a promising new addition to frontline operational IFV-class vehicles. Some 800 units will eventually be procured should the program proceed as planned, replacing the outgoing breeds of APCs currently in service with the Israeli Army and in many ways standardizing and streamlining the Army inventory. Additionally, the Namer/Merkava IV chassis will undoubtedly spawn a slew of other battlefield-minded vehicles in the near future. Armament options for the RCWS will also be broadened after a several years of operational use - largely to suit growing Israeli Army requirements against a very particular brand of enemy and operating environment (mostly urban).
While there are no official foreign operators of the Namer, Azerbaijan is believed to be a possible first-candidate of the new vehicle.