I recently attended a conference at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism near Tel Aviv where senior military officers analysed the operational lessons of Israel's campaign in Lebanon. One of the most salient developments from the fighting was the prolific use of sophisticated anti-tank weaponry by Hezbollah.
During the 34-day conflict, the militia's fighters fired hundreds of anti-tank guided missiles that inflicted more than half of all Israeli combat fatalities. These weapons were used not only against conventional targets such as armoured vehicles but against dispersed infantry formations as well.
Major General Giora Eiland (retired), Israel's former national security adviser, described this deluge of missiles as one of the great tactical surprises of the war. And to their chagrin, the Israelis discovered that their top-of-the-line main battle tank, the Merkava Mark IV, was vulnerable to modern missiles with tandem warheads.
Just as Israel is engaged in self-evaluation, there is no doubt that a similar process of assessment is under way on the other side of the firing line.
Hezbollah commanders and their Iranian sponsors are doubtless closely studying what worked and what didn't. Islamic holy warriors from other fronts in the global jihad are also surely looking to Lebanon for tactical tips in their fight against the infidel. The roadside explosives and suicide vehicles that plague Western forces in Afghanistan and Iraq were first perfected by Hezbollah during the 1990s
The effectiveness of the Lebanese Shi'ite militia's anti-tank tactics against Israel makes that stratagem a highly attractive model for imitation. Thus the coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan must prepare to encounter late-model anti-tank missiles in future engagements with jihadi insurgents. These sophisticated weapons are coming soon to a theatre of operations near you.
Yet as things now stand, the Australian army is woefully ill-prepared to meet this threat. The Russian Spandrel and Kornet missiles of Hezbollah were able to penetrate the sophisticated composite armour of Israel's 65-tonne Merkava. There is little doubt such weapons would prove to be effective against the flanks and rear of Australia's similarly protected Abrams tanks. Even worse would be the destruc`tion that modern anti-tank missiles would inflict upon the more lightly armoured elements of our mechanised forces. The Kornet's tandem warhead would punch through Australian ASLAVs, Bushmasters and M-113s with a terrible ease.
I went to war in 1982 on the back of an Israeli M-113. And I bear all the nostalgic affection for that Vietnam-era vehicle that a WWII tank general might have held for the horse-mounted cavalry of his youth.
But neither sentimentality, nor lightly armoured personnel carriers have any place on a medium-to-high intensity battlefield. Bushmaster armoured trucks and ASLAVs might be enough to overawe a lightly armed enemy in places such as East Timor and the Solomons. But these vehicles would be nothing more than missile-fodder to an enemy armed - like Hezbollah - with late-model anti-tank missiles.
The course of battle in Lebanon has conclusively proved that even the most modern composite armour technology cannot withstand modern anti-tank missilery. But a technical solution exists to the problem that is both operational and readily available.
A number of Western defence firms have developed ''active protection systems'' that provide armoured vehicles with a ''hard kill'' defence. These systems feature compact radars that detect incoming warheads, which are then destroyed by carefully aimed blast of buckshot-like projectiles.
Thus for about $US250,000 ($335,000) a vehicle, the danger posed by enemy anti-tank missiles can be substantially moderated, if not neutralised. And the threat to friendly dismounted infantry in the vicinity is negligible.
The Pentagon has decided all new US armoured vehicles will have ''hard kill'' systems. The Australian army should immediately move to acquire the same systems for its core mechanised units.
Conventional military wisdom holds that the largest formation that the Australian army can project is a reinforced brigade equipped with about 150 combat vehicles. Thus at the cost of $50 million, Australia's expeditionary forces would be protected against one of the deadliest weapons that any serious adversary is likely to wield against them.
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