Russian Anti-Armour Weapons and Israeli Tanks in Lebanon
The military conflict that unfolded from 12 July – 14 August, 2006 between Israel and the Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Islamist Resistance group, marked the first time in several years that the Israeli army has confronted a well equipped opponent in a large-scale confrontation. Military observers paid particular attention to the use of Israeli armour and the outcome of battles between Israeli main battle tanks and Hezbollah’s anti-tank weaponry.
All in all, four division headquarters and 17 Israeli Army brigades (six armoured, seven infantry and four airborne) took part in battle, though not all were up to full combat strength. Over 30,000 Israeli servicemen and up to 400 main battle tanks were directly engaged in battle on Lebanese soil, and the tanks were all Merkava models made in Israel. Of the six armoured brigades, two brigades (7th and 847th) were equipped with the Merkava Mk 2 model, three brigades (188th, 434th and 673rd) with the Merkava Mk 3 model, and one brigade (401st) with the most advanced Merkava Mk 4 model. Of the seven infantry brigades, two (1st and 609th) were equipped with Achzarit heavy armoured personnel carriers, converted from Soviet T-55 tanks seized from Arab forces in the wars of 1967 and 1973.
Since 2000, Hezbollah has turned the expanse between the Israeli border and the Litani river into a heavily fortified line of defence, known as “Nasser.” Practically every settlement was equipped with temporary or permanent fortifications (including concrete bunkers, steel doors, etc), a large number of underground tunnels and heavy camouflage. However, although Hezbollah fighters made use of these fortifications, they did not engage in positional warfare, but mounted mobile military operations. Fighters were mobilized in groups of no more than 20 people (often just five or six), based, as a rule, on detachments of anti-tank missile systems. It appears their strategy was to expose the advancing Israeli units, and tank units in particular, to guided anti-tank missiles fired at a fairly long range, often changing their positions, using a network of tunnels and bunkers.
Hezbollah deployed up to 2500 fighters, of which a core of a thousand “regular” troops were well trained and equipped to the best western standards. These zealous, professional fighters were well supplied with arms, and strictly followed orders. One could not say that Israel was fighting with “partisan” formations in the conventional sense of the term, but in reality with a well equipped and organized regular army, even if it displayed some peculiar methods of warfare.
Hezbollah made a special effort to confront Israeli armour with a huge number of anti-tank weapons, including the Soviet Malyutka anti-tank guided—missile complex (NATO code AT-3) with 9M14 series guided—missiles (including licensed Yugoslav versions and the Iranian Raad and Raad—2T tandem warhead “clones,” the Fagot (AT-5), Konkurs (AT-5, including the licensed Iranian Towsan-1 version), the French MILAN, the American TOW (including its Iranian Toophan and tandem warhead Toophan-2 copy), recoilless guns and several versions of the Soviet RPG-7 hand-held anti-tank grenade launcher. Iran and Syria were the main suppliers of these weapons, with some western systems apparently reaching the Shiites from the arsenal of the Lebanese Army.
Aside from that, Hezbollah used a small number of modern 9K115—2 Metis-M (AT-13) and 9K129 Kornet-E (AT-14) portable anti-tank guided—missile systems, and RPG-29 Vampir anti-tank rocket launchers, delivered by Russia to Syria in 1998—1999. These three new systems penetrated armour exceptionally well thanks to their tandem High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) warheads. The close-range Metis-M system have a range of up to 1500 meters and are armed with 9M131 guided—missiles weighing 13.8 kg with wire-guidance. The heavier Kornet-E fires 9M133 laser-guided missiles weighing 29 kg up to 5500 meters. Both systems are made by the Tula Instrument Design Bureau and were equipped with 1PN86V1 Mulat thermal sights. The hand-held RPG‑29 Vampir anti-tank rocket launcher is one of the latest products of Moscow-based Basalt. Weighing 11.5 kg, it fires rocket-propelled grenades that weigh 6.2 kg up to 500 metres from a telescopic pipe.
Hezbollah’s defences were structured around these anti-tank weapons, which were used in great numbers. According to Israeli estimates, the fighters launched over 500 anti-tank guided—missiles in July alone, and about 1000 through the course of the conflict. Moreover, the anti-tank guided—missiles were used not only against armoured objects, but also against Israeli infantry. The fighters sought generally to employ the weapons from the maximum possible range.
On the whole, both the scale of Hezbollah’s use of anti-tank systems, as well as their possession of modern systems with superior armour penetration capability, came as a surprise to the Israeli command. Nevertheless, measures to reduce losses of armour were taken from the very beginning. It is indicative that on Lebanese territory the Israelis used only their heavily protected APCs on main battle tank chassis: the Achazarit (on the T‑55 chassis), the Nagmahon, a few of Nemerah prototypes(on the Merkava chassis), the Puma combat engineering vehicle and the Nakpadon, all based on the old British Centurion tank chassis, while the standard M113 APCs, even those modernized with a great deal of extra protection, where hardly used at all, and then only as engineering, support and convoy vehicles.
According to various Israeli and Western sources, during the course of battle in Lebanon, between 46 and 50 Merkava main battle tanks (of the 400 deployed) and 14 APCs were hit by anti-tank weapons, including 22 incidents where tank armour and 5 cases where APC armour was penetrated. Another six tanks and at least one APC were blown up by mines and IDEs.
Of those tanks hit by anti-tank weapons, 18 were the newest Merkava Mk 4 version (from the 401st armoured brigade), and six of these had their armour penetrated. Twenty-three tank and five APC crew members were killed. A large number of anti-tank guide-missiles and RPG grenades hit the tanks, but in most cases these did little damage. It was reported that one of the Merkava Mk 4 tanks survived 23 hits from anti-tank guided—missiles before it was finally disabled and its armour penetrated. All penetrations of Merkava armour, according to Israeli statements, were achieved by the Konkurs, Metis-M and Kornet-E anti-tank guided—missiles, and the RPG-29 rocket-propelled grenades. If one considers that 22 of 50 tanks had their armour penetrated, that gives a penetration rate of 44% (and only 33% for the Merkava Mk 4). According to Israeli Army statistics, the penetration rate for tanks during the 1982 Lebanon War was 47%, and 60% during the 1973 War. The crew casualties rate was also much higher in 2006 at 0.5 crew member for each damaged tank, while the rate per disabled tank in 1973 War is one full crew member.
The number of irrecoverable tank losses among those damaged, according to recent Israeli publications, was five altogether, of which two (a Merkava Mk 2 and Mk 4) were destroyed by IDEs and three tanks were completely burned out after hits by guided anti-tank guided—missiles. This attests to the high degree of protection afforded by the most modern Merkava Mk 4 tanks, which could be damaged only by the most modern anti-tank weapons with powerful tandem HEAT warheads hitting, it would seem, weakened armoured zones.
The extremely low percentage of missile hits and the low percentage of armour penetration clearly shows that the vast majority of anti-tank guided—missiles were of the old type, most likely the completely obsolete Malyutka (and its many copies), with clumsy guidance systems (manual, on the oldest models), with no modern sights and a relatively small warhead, by modern standards.
It appears that non-modernized second generation anti-tank guided—missiles produced in the 1970s (Fagot, Konkurs, MILAN, TOW) were used in battle. The Kornet-E and Metis-M systems, with their much higher level of effectiveness, were clearly present in very small numbers, but accounted for the majority of Israeli losses. This allows one to conclude that Israel made an issue of the possession of these new systems by Hezbollah mostly for political, rather than strictly military, reasons. On the other hand, if Hezbollah had a large number of Kornet-E and Metis-M systems, the Israeli tank attack in Lebanon could have been completely repelled. Modern Russian weapons proved to be quite effective against the newest Western equipment.
The old types of anti-tank guided—missile systems have shown themselves to be extremely ineffective. And since the majority of anti-tank forces in the world are equipped with precisely this old generation of missile systems, the results of recent warfare in Lebanon should sound an alarm, and provoke considered reflection regarding the purchase of modern anti-tank weapons, such as the Kornet-E.
Nevertheless, from their experience in Lebanon the Israelis themselves concluded that armour itself cannot in principle provide full protection from anti-tank guided—missile systems, and that all of their tanks would be equipped with active protection systems such as the Rafael Trophy and the IMI Iron Fist systems.
They decided in early 2007 to equip the entire fleet of Merkava tanks and the Nemerah APCs yet to be built with Trophy active protection systems by the end of 2008. Passive electronic countermeasures are also now held in high regard. Apparently, none of the four tanks equipped with experimental electronic countermeasures system was hit by even a single anti-tank guided—missile.
However, the importance of heavy “conventional” armour (including explosive reactive armour suites) was also proven on the battlefield, and the Israelis decided to continue the production of Merkava Mk 4 main battle tanks, and to launch the serial production of heavily armoured Nemerah APCs on the chassis of these tanks. Two hundred such vehicles have been ordered.
Thus, the war in Lebanon has proven the Soviet and Russian approach to the development of protection for main battle tanks, as established in the 1970s, to be very well. In the 1980s the USSR created the first comprehensive passive (Shtora) and active (Drozd, Arena) protection systems, which are still being developed today. Israel and the West are only now catching up to Russia. Meanwhile, we can see that the newest Western tanks (included the well-protected Merkava) burn up when hit by modern anti-tank weapons in just the same way as the old Soviet T-72 tanks deployed in Chechnya and Iraq.
Russia avoided the Western fashion of dismissing heavy armour and explosive reactive armour as “unnecessary” and continued to develop a balanced configuration of armour, including detachable and built-in protection, and in this turned out to be justified. The Lebanese conflict of 2006 and the war in Iraq have once again proven allegations of the obsolescence of the main battle tank to be absurd. The modern MBT with its powerful heavy armour and large combat weight will continue for some time as the core of the land forces.
As for the tactical application of armour troops, it is clear that the Israelis used their tanks in small groups almost exclusively for immediate support of line infantry. It was precisely this well equipped and trained infantry that played the decisive role in battle. Attempts to use armour troops to achieve a breakthrough without infantry support and reconnaissance inevitably led to senseless losses, as befell the forces of the 401st Israeli armoured brigade at Vadi Saluki on 9 August.
The tank battalion of this brigade, pushing forward with no infantry, fell into a fire trap of anti-tank guided—missile systems (mostly Kornet-E, according to Israeli sources), losing eleven Mk 4 Merkava tanks damaged and eight crew killed, including the battalion commander. The Israeli armour troops were clearly not well prepared for action against modern anti-tank weapons.
On the Israeli side, it is also clear that the armoured reserve units were insufficiently prepared, especially in the use of countermeasures (smoke screens, advancing fire to disturb aiming, reverse gear withdrawal, etc). As such, the quality of the training of the armour troops and the ability of the commanders to effectively combine tanks and other forces remain the key elements for the successful use of main battle tanks on the field.