Artillery: Secrets Disclosed, Mysteries Explained

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November 19, 2021: In October Israel released photos and other details of its oldest, and rarely discussed Tamuz guided missile. Earlier, the latest version of Tamuz, now called Spike NLOS, was revealed to be what was used to attack a convoy of trucks carrying Iranian weapons to Lebanon. The convoy was close enough to the Israeli border for a Spike NLOS missile to reach. This was cheaper (at about $220,000 a missile) than using a longer-range, and more expensive, air-to-surface missile launched from a more expensive to operate F-16. The Spike NLOS was launched from a helicopter.

“Tamuz” is the fourth month of the Hebrew calendar, and begins in June. As a code name for a secret weapon, it did the job. The recently released photos showed the earliest version of Tamuz, which was mounted on a M113 APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) with four Tamuz storage/firing canisters. Photos of the launch were also shown, with all four canisters elevated and the missile leaving one of them. The launch vehicle and the crew belonged to the top-secret Meitar artillery unit, which was created to select and train operators for Tamuz, as well as maintain and deploy the Tamuz launch vehicles as needed.

In 2017 Israel disbanded Meitar, one of its oldest (since 1986), most effective and secretive artillery units that used a unique, very effective and quite secret weapon called Tamuz. Disbanding Meitar was not unexpected because in late 2016 Israel admitted the existence of a “secret weapon” that had been largely kept out of news since it first entered service in 1981. The weapon has been known since 2009, when the latest version was offered for export as the Spike NLOS (Non Line-Of-Sight) missile rather than Tamuz 5.

Israel had, as far back as the late 1970s been secretly developing a long range, highly accurate missile known only as “Tamuz” and formed Meitar, a special artillery unit, to operate these extremely accurate battlefield missiles. Tamuz was a missile that used a video camera and radio link to enable the operator to hit small targets at long ranges. The first Tamuz had a range of ten kilometers while later models had 20 and now 25 kilometers, or up to fifty kilometers if launched from a helicopter. Since the missile was guided to the target by a human operator, there was always the option to abort at the last minute. Disbanding Meitar made sense because the basic technology behind these missiles had become cheaper, easier to use and more widely known and used. In short, the “Meitar Magic” had become easier to manufacture and easier to use and now appeared in many weapons.

Over its 30-year history Meitar used Tamuz over a thousand times and many enemies it had been used against had come to understand that this was not more Israeli “magic” but just a technological edge the Israelis developed first and found to be more effective if the details were kept secret. Some Israeli allies found out about it and sought to purchase Tamuz. Between 2007 and 2020 Britain, South Korea and the United States have become users of Tamuz 5, now called Spike NLOS.

From the beginning what made Tamuz so effective was the use of trained operators to “drive” the missile to a very specific target, like a moving vehicle or a window into a specific room. Until the Spike NLOS version was revealed in 2009, units equipped with Tamuz missiles were considered elite because skilled and well-trained operators were needed to make sure the final moments of flight took the missile to the target, which was often moving or simply small. Aside from the time (months) and efforts to recruit and train the operators, Tamuz was also expensive, several times what a less accurate guided missile cost. After the 1990s advances in electronics, software and design made it possible to add “fire and forget” and other operator friendly features to most new ATGM (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles). Rafael, the Israeli firm that developed and built Tamuz, transferred some of the Tamuz tech to its Spike family of ATGMs, which first entered service in 1997. Rafael noticed that upgrades to Tamuz tech were converging with what the Spike family of ATGMs, and competing foreign systems, were using. Eventually it made sense to call the latest version of Tamuz what it really was, a longer range of the Spike missile, which became known as Spike NLOS.

Before that Tamuz was considered a very specialized weapon whose existence was generally kept secret. For one thing if potential enemies knew details of how Tamuz worked they could develop tactics and methods that would make Tamuz less effective. Moreover, the secrecy reinforced the attitude among Islamic terrorists that the Western and Israeli infidels (non-Moslems) must be using some sort of sorcery, which is forbidden to devout Moslems, to make it work. It wasn’t sorcery, it was just carefully developed and properly used tech.

Before offering the latest version, Spike NLOS, for export in 2009 Israel secretly sold it to Britain in 2007 for use in Afghanistan. This was part of a deal that involved Britain buying UAV technology from Israel for their Watchkeeper UAV. Britain bought over 600 Spike NLOS missiles and used them very effectively in Afghanistan to quickly destroy Taliban efforts to fire rockets and mortar shells at British bases. The British called the Spike NLOS missile systems Exactor and cautioned the troops to keep quiet about the details. The secrecy generally held although there were occasional mentions of Exactor in British military publications ever since.

Spike NLOS weighs 70kg (155 pounds), about 50 percent more than the more popular, cheaper and less capable American Hellfire missile. Spike NLOS can be fired at a target the operator cannot see, but someone else, with a laser designator, can see. Spike NLOS is usually fired from helicopters, which also provides the laser designator. There is also a ground version, which was what the British used in Afghanistan, with missile launchers mounted armored vehicles, like the original Tamuz. Spike NLOS has multiple guidance systems, mainly laser and the live video feed can be used for the operator to fly the missile into the target or simply designate an image of the selected target so the missile can home in by itself (“fire and forget”). The operator can still have Spike NLOS self-destruct or shift to another target.

Israel successfully used Spike NLOS during the 2006 war with Hezbollah in south Lebanon and the 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza. Now that most of the details of what Spike NLOS is and where it came from, and what it has been through, it is an increasingly popular, if expensive, export item. But that is mainly because various versions of this missile, first as Tamuz then as Spike NLOS, had been in service since 1981, were battle tested and known to be very dependable and effective no matter what tech they used.

 


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