Friday, October 20, 2006

Merkava Killers in Lebanon

I had occasion to visit Israel as a guest of its ministry of defense in April 2001, in the run up to the Paris Air Show that July. The idea was for a group of defense journalists to spend a week visiting all of the key high-tech companies responsible for Israel's weapons systems, IAI Elta, IAI Malat, IMI, Tadiran, Elisra, Elbit, Raphael, and others. We also got to visit a number of interesting military installations, the Arrow ABM site and the 200 Squadron UAV unit outside of Tel Aviv, and the F-15I base in the Negev.

Coming into the country through Ben Gurion was a grueling process, however, and by the time most of our group had been processed I was still an hour or so in arrears. The upshot of this was that my escort, an IDF official, drove me to my hotel himself. It turns out that he was an armor officer, and was very enthusiastic about the Merkava main battle tank. Knowing that I was an American, he took care to say nice things about the Abrams. But the Merkava, he assured me, was the best tank in the world. It was conceived, designed, and built from the treads up to meet the specific requirements of the IDF. It fights in the desert. It fights in the streets.

It is interesting to note that Israel buys nearly all of its "platforms" from the US, notably its aircraft and vehicles. This is because the large amounts of military aid the US provides must be spent on US-supplied weapons systems. To these the Israelis typically integrate indigenous electronics and weapons systems of demonstrable high quality. Therefore it is significant that the only indigenously produced combat vehicle is the Merkava series of MBTs. Most anything other type of platform can be purchased from other suppliers (the subs come from Germany because the US doesn't make diesel electric attack boats) and customized with Israeli electronics. Even the ship hit by an C-802 missile in the recent war with Hezbollah was built by Northrop Grumman. But Israel considers its ability to produce MBTs to its own specifications to be a strategic necessity.

One of the most dangerous counters to the Merkava on the market today is the AT-14 Kornet anti-tank missile. Not only does the weapon have a tremendous two-stage warhead capable of penetrating the armor of the latest generation of MBTs, such as the Merkava and the Abrams, it employs a laser-beamrider guidance. The importance of the latter is that laser-warning receivers on tanks may not detect the laser energy of the missile system, because the beam is focused on a receiver on the tail assembly of the missile rather than the target. Think of a laser beamrider as receiving its guidance commands by laser rather than through a wire. Targeting information is collected by the launch crew by means of a passive electrooptical system and an auto tracker. A computer translates the tracking data into guidance commands sent automatically to the missile via the laser. This form of guidance is much more difficult for a laser-warning receiver to detect than laser-guided weapons whose seekers home on reflected laser energy from a spot held on the target. The only opportunity a tank crew has to receive warning of an impending launch of a laser-beamrider is when the missile crew briefly lases the tank for range, an activity that can be difficult for laser-warning receivers to detect.

Reports that laser-beamrider anti-tank missiles are turning up in southern Lebanon must be a source of intense concern to IDF officials. The weapons are apparently coming from Syria and Iran, who have purchased the systems in large numbers from an obliging Russia. It is likely that many of Israel's casualties and the unexpectedly large numbers of armored vehicles lost in operations against Hezbollah were due to the introduction of the Kornet. Certainly, the loss of Merkava tanks to Hezbollah militia must have come as a shock and a painful blow to the IDF, which has placed such faith in its homegrown MBT. I wonder how long it will be before Hamas also has access to such weapons?

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