Armor: Steal From Your Frenemies


July 13, 2012: One reason for Russia recently halting shipments of weapons to Syria is the recent announcement that Iran has begun production of an ATGM (Anti-Tank Guided Missile) that appears to be a copy of the Russian Kornet E missile. This is a Russian laser guided ATGM with a range of 5,000 meters. The launcher has a thermal sight for use at night or in fog. The missile's warhead can penetrate 1200 mm of armor, which means that the side armor of most modern heavy tanks would be vulnerable. The missile weighs 8.2 kg (18 pounds) and the launcher 19 kg (42 pounds). The system was introduced in 1994, and had been sold to Syria (who apparently passed them on to Hezbollah despite promising Russia not to pass it on to anyone). In 2006, the Kornet was used to best effect against buildings Israeli troops were in. With assault rifles and RPGs (the primary weapons of Hamas) Hezbollah was not very effective against the Israeli infantry.

Russia did not make a fuss about Syria breaking its agreement by giving Kornet E to Hezbollah (an Iranian backed militia that controls southern Lebanon, Syria). That was because Hezbollah gave Kornet E its first combat use and the Hezbollah reports made the Russian ATGM sound like a resounding success.

Then Israel published its own analysis of armored vehicle losses during the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. This was much less flattering to Kornet E. Of the 23 members of the armored corps killed in action during the 2006 fighting, 15 were killed by ATGMs and seven by mines. The cause of death for the other dead solider was not recorded specifically. It was most probably gunfire hitting a vehicle commander with his head out of a hatch to get a better view of the situation. Over half of the armor casualties were attributable to just 3-4 incidents. The ATGM Merkava tank deaths were all accounted for by just 6-7 hits.

There were 14 APCs (armored personnel carriers) hit by ATGMs. In two of these incidents seven troops in the vehicles were killed. APCs got perforated 11 times. The APCs involved were Achzarits (rebuilt, turretless, T-55 tanks) and Pumas (rebuilt, turretless, Centurion tanks). Three APCs hit mines, killing 5 infantrymen in two incidents (4 in one vehicle). Some 90 percent of these APC casualties occurred in one night. In comparison, 14 infantrymen were killed by ATGMs fired at buildings. The vast majority of the infantry casualties were still caused by bullets, grenades, and shell fire (including PRGs).

Despite the many hundreds of engagements, there are only 8-9 recorded incidents where Hezbollah ATGM fire was able to cause deaths inside armored vehicles and four times where ATGM fire killed troops in buildings.

The experience in Lebanon again proved that ATGMs tend to be overrated. Israel first encountered ATGMs during the 1973 war and quickly adapted. ATGMs were much less effective in the 1982 war and didn't do all that well in 2006 either. Hezbollah quickly learned that the Merkava frontal armor was impervious to the Kornet E. Getting side and rear shots was more difficult and not a lot more successful. While the ATGM warhead often penetrated, the Merkava was designed to take these kinds of hits and survive, and survive it did. In addition to fire extinguisher systems, the ammo and fuel are stored in such a way that secondary explosions are rare. Thus the crew normally survives these hits, as does the tank.

Hezbollah has received several thousand ATGMs over the years. Many of them are elderly, like the Russian Sagger. This is a 1960s design. It's a 10.9 kg (24 pound) missile, with a range of 3,000 meters that must be carefully "driven" to its target via a joy stick controller. This requires a lot of practice to do right. The warhead is not very effective against tanks but can do a lot of damage to buildings. Iran also sent some elderly TOW missiles, dating from the 1970s. These are too heavy to haul around, and most are unstable because of age. Lighter ATGM systems have proved more useful but not the wonder weapons Hezbollah proclaimed them to be and Russia hoped they would be.

Iran is likely to ignore any Russian protests about unlicensed manufacture of the Kornet E. That's because the Iranians are threatening to sue Russia for not delivering S300 anti-aircraft missiles that were bought and paid for. Russia eventually refunded the money but Iran was not placated.




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