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Hizballah's Anti-Tank Missiles Find MoreThan Tanks

Last week The Jamestown Foundation took a look at the creative ways in which hizballah leveraged it's most important new weapon, the anti-tank missile. They leveraged it for far more than just killing tanks, including successful shots on buildings, IDF troop formations and even a possible helicopter shoot down.

The primary target of Hezbollah's battlefield missiles is the Israeli-made Merkava tank. The Merkava was designed for the maximum protection of its crews, with heavy armor and a rear escape hatch. The emphasis on crew survival is not simply a humanitarian gesture; the small country of Israel cannot provide an endless number of trained, combat-ready tank crews if casualties begin to mount. The tank is also designed to be easily and quickly repaired, a specialty of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The modular armor plating can be easily replaced if damaged, or replaced entirely with upgraded materials when available. The first generation of Merkavas was built in the 1970s and was soon deployed in Lebanon in 1982. The much-improved Merkava Mk 4 has been Israel's main battle-tank since its introduction in 2004.

Current battlefield reports suggest that Hezbollah fighters are well-trained in aiming at the Merkava's most vulnerable points, resulting in as many as one-quarter of their missiles successfully piercing the armor (Yediot Aharonot, August 10). Hezbollah attacks on Merkava tanks during the November 2005 raid on the border town of Ghajar were videotaped and closely examined to find points where the armor was susceptible to missile attack. While some of their missiles have impressive ranges (up to three kilometers), the guerrillas prefer to fire from close range to maximize their chances of hitting weak points on the Merkava. Operating in two- or three-man teams, the insurgents typically try to gain the high ground in the hilly terrain before selecting targets, using well-concealed missile stockpiles that allow them to operate behind Israeli lines (Jerusalem Post, August 3).

Without artillery, Hezbollah has adapted its use of anti-tank missiles for mobile fire support against Israeli troops taking cover in buildings. There are numerous reports of such use, the most devastating being on August 9, when an anti-tank missile collapsed an entire building, claiming the lives of nine Israeli reservists (Y-net, August 10). Four soldiers from Israel's Egoz (an elite reconnaissance unit) were killed in a Bint Jbail house when it was struck by a Sagger missile (Haaretz, August 6). TOW missiles were used effectively in 2000 against IDF outposts in south Lebanon before the Israeli withdrawal. There are also recent instances of anti-tank weapons being used against Israeli infantry in the field, a costly means of warfare but one that meets two important Hezbollah criteria: the creation of Israeli casualties and the preservation of highly-outnumbered Hezbollah guerrillas who can fire the weapons from a relatively safe distance.

It was suggested that the IDF helicopter brought down by Hezbollah fire on August 12 was hit by an anti-tank missile. Hezbollah claimed to have used a new missile called the Wa'ad (Promise), although the organization occasionally renames existing missiles (Jerusalem Post, August 12). At least one of Israel's ubiquitous armored bulldozers has also fallen prey to Hezbollah's missiles.

The Syrian-made RPG-29 was previously used with some success against Israeli tanks in Gaza. Hezbollah also uses this weapon, with a dual-warhead that allows it to penetrate armor. On August 6, the Israeli press reported that IDF intelligence sources claimed that an improved Russian-made version of the RPG-29 was being sold to Syria before transfer to the Islamic Resistance (Haaretz, August 6). In response, Russia's Foreign Ministry denied any involvement in supplying anti-tank weapons to Hezbollah (RIA Novosti, August 10). The IDF reports that anti-tank missiles and rockets continue to cross the border into Lebanon from Syria, despite the destruction of roads and bridges in the area (Haaretz, August 13).

For a photo that includes the Iranian inscription on the trigger mechanism and more information, see Iran Defense: New Doctrine, Old Doctrine.