Air Weapons: April 1, 2004


The successful attack on terrorist leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin last month highlights how the Israeli Defense Forces have mastered the use of the helicopter gunship equipped with anti-tank missiles for surgical strikes in urban areas. This is not the first such attack, but it has become the method of choice for dealing with terrorists.

The Israelis have sometimes used aircraft to deliver bombs (usually laser-guided) to take out the building a terrorist leader resided in. However, even the smallest laser-guided bombs (based on the Mark 82 500-pound bomb) usually cause significant collateral damage, and that creates an uproar in the international press. Such uproars, like the one in July, 2002 after the attack that killed Salah Shehada, a high-ranking Hamas military leader and 14 others (including nine children), cause additional headaches for Israel, which has played the public relations game reasonably well. Still, when the Israelis are going after a high-level figure in Hamas or another terrorist group, they want to make sure they succeed such opportunities dont come very often.

The solution has come in the form of the helicopter gunship (usually the AH-64 Apache) and anti-tank missiles (usually the AGM-114 Hellfire). The Apache/Hellfire combination has become Israels first choice for taking out terrorist leaders. The Hellfire was originally an anti-tank missile, with an 18-pound shaped charge warhead or a 20-pound tandem anti-armor warhead. It also works well against cars which terrorists use to get to places. The Hellfires laser guidance system and speed (at Mach 1.3, it is over 60 percent faster than the Israeli-designed Spike-ER) make it a natural choice for use against terrorists. One of the first helicopter attacks was in November, 2000, when a top Fatah leader, Beit Sahur, was killed.

These attacks occur quickly (approximately thirty seconds). That is still sufficient time to launch two Hellfires at maximum range (8 kilometers). It might not completely evade detection, but with the large area covered (nearly 200 square kilometers), it is practically impossible to figure out exactly who the Apache is hunting until the Hellfires have struck. The Apaches ability to magnify images also helps. The Israelis also can keep the terrorist leaders guessing by helicopter gunships fly overhead constantly they never know if the Apache is on routine patrol, or if it is out on an attack mission. Often intelligence will also provide information on which car (or cars) the terrorist is using.

The Israeli methodology also plays well in the press. If anyone besides the target is killed, it usually will be other members of the group, often bodyguards. The deliberate attempt to avoid collateral damage helps Israel abroad, particularly when compared to the murder-suicide bombings that are the method groups like Hamas use most often. That difference is often pointed out by Israels political supporters in the United States, Israels major supplier of military aid.

The Americans have added a new twist to this approach. In November,  2002, the Central Intelligence Agency used a Hellfire to kill the mastermind of the attack on the USS Cole in Aden. Only this Hellfire was fired from a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle. The Hellfire, originally designed to take out Warsaw Pact tanks at a distance, has now become the preferred weapon to use when one wants to take out terrorist leaders with a minimum of collateral damage. Harold C. Hutchison (


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