Recent reports have indicated, once again, that an Israeli defense industry – in this case it was Rafael Advanced Defense Systems – introduced a state-of-the-art model of an antitank missile. This time, the model introduced was the fifth generation of the electro-optically guided Spike missile family that may be launched from vehicles, helicopters, naval vessels or from a ground launcher. The new missile carries a tandem warhead possessing cutting-edge penetration capabilities – it can penetrate enemy armor at ranges of up to 5,500 meters.
This missile, like its older brethren, is undoubtedly significant owing to the ability it provides its operators, in the IDF and the other armed forces that have already acquired it and will acquire it in the future: to come up with a solution to the primary threat of the land battlefield, as manifested in the various conflicts and theaters of war of the previous century – the threat imposed by the maneuvering armored elements.
The IDF acquired antitank missiles as far back as in the early 1960s. The first antitank missiles purchased were the French-made SS-10 and SS-11, IDF designation "Tagar" that had been assigned to the Artillery Corps even before the German-made Cobra missiles, IDF designation "Ashaf", were adopted by the infantry and paratrooper units. These missiles constituted a part of the IDF order of battle for the Six-Day War of 1967, but owing to the overwhelming success of the IDF armored forces, they hardly had any impact. The Egyptian forces employed their Soviet-made 3M6 Shmel antitank missiles against the IDF tanks on a number of occasions, with no significant success.
The ability to employ antitank missiles was kept 'on the back burner' but even so it was not utilized by the IDF during the difficult operations of the Yom-Kippur War (1973). On the other hand, the employment of antitank weapons during the same war by the Arab forces, and particularly by the Egyptians, was regarded as one of the primary innovations of that war.
A Cornerstone in the Planning of Offensive Operations
The innovative nature of the very employment of a force armed with antitank missiles against tanks was likened by British historian Phillip Karber – in an article about the Soviet argument regarding antitank warfare – to the tactical innovation introduced in the battle of Laufen in 1339. In that battle, a small group of Swiss foot soldiers, armed only with spears, managed to resist mounted, armor-clad knights by pulling them off their horses, thereby launching a new era in the history of warfare.
The two aggressor armed forces in the Yom-Kippur War – the Egyptians and the Syrians – operated in principle according to the Soviet combat doctrine. The issue of defensive action generally and antitank defense in particular had been discussed and planned in detail. As the Israeli armored force constituted the primary tier on which the Israeli response to any Arab attack was expected to rely, antitank warfare became the cornerstone in the operational planning of the attacking forces generally and especially that of the Egyptian forces, for the bridgehead establishment stage and the preparations for resisting the Israeli counterattacks.
The Arab antitank warfare had been based, according to the doctrine, on secondary layouts that included a stationary layout and a mobile layout. The Egyptians – fully aware of their inferiority in all matters pertaining to maneuverability – had based their antitank defense on the stationary layout primarily. In order to come up with a solution to the superiority of the Israeli armored forces, the Arab armed forces, on both fronts, had paid particular attention to their antitank forces.
During and after the war, mainly on the Sinai front, the AT-3 Sagger (Soviet designation 9M14 Malyutka) antitank missile – employed massively by the Egyptian frontline units – constituted the primary Egyptian answer to the overwhelming superiority of the Israeli armor. The Egyptian defensive layout to the east of the Suez Canal, which relied primarily on the Sagger missiles, was conceived – as stated previously – by the participants of that war and those who subsequently studied it, as the primary surprise of the Yom-Kippur War.
The Egyptians, who had realized that the Israeli superiority in numbers and in the operation of their armored force would present a critical problem for their water-fording forces and bridgeheads on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, found the solution to this problem in the planning and employment of their antitank layout, notably the antitank missiles. They devoted a massive theoretical and organizational effort to the antitank warfare issue and managed to achieve a high density of antitank weapons at the front of the forces that forded the Suez Canal and established the bridgeheads. Saad el-Shazly, the Egyptian Chief of Staff, noted in his book that "By withdrawing the bridgeheads and reducing their scope we managed to concentrate our defensive fire, increase the density of our antitank weapons along each kilometer of the frontline, and allow the bridgeheads to benefit from artillery support and antitank fire support even from the western bank of the Suez Canal."
The Egyptians employed the antitank missiles on the battlefield in two modes: with the missiles transported by infantrymen and launched from the ground, or mounted and operated from APCs. The Sagger missile systems, and mainly the man-portable systems, were normally employed by infantry units.
Owing to the importance of the issue of defending against the Israeli tanks, the Egyptians deployed most of their Sagger launchers in dispositions located 100 to 200 meters from the forward edge of their defensive layout – either in front of the forward edge, as ambush details, or inside the defensive layout, as part of the antitank reserve elements. This forward deployment was intended to utilize the missiles to the fullest extent of their range. The missile operator crews were deployed opposite potential armor breakthrough areas, normally on the flanks or in gaps between neighboring forces. In order to create depth within the antitank layout, positions for antitank missile launchers were also prepared at the depth of the battalion layout and up to a distance of 2 kilometers from its forward edge.
The allocation of Sagger missiles to each of the divisions was massive, in some cases reaching 1,250 missiles for the first three days of fighting, including 460 missiles for the first day of fighting. This concentrated employment of antitank missiles by the hastily-prepared defensive layouts of the bridgeheads, during the initial stages of the war, as well as by the more structured layouts during subsequent stages, was the first operational experiment in the employment of these measures on such a massive scale. The actual results of the war, as well as the morale-related effect of these missiles on the armored forces of the IDF, proved the effectiveness of this particular weapon system.
Maj. Gen. Israel Tal described in his book how, during the first day of the fighting on the southern front, with the Egyptian forces equipped only with light antitank weapons, 80 of the 150 attacking Israeli tanks were hit. He stated further that the Egyptians were quite content with acquiring the ability to defend against the Israeli tanks by entrenching and employing massive amounts of antitank weapons, and that the enemy managed to compel Israel to engage in static warfare and conduct a war of attrition.
The wise employment of the various types of antitank weapons, and the antitank missiles in particular, the way they were incorporated into the various layouts and concentrated mainly at the forward edge of the bridgehead, yielded, as stated previously, very successful results for the Egyptian Army's effort against the tanks of the IDF during the Yom-Kippur War.
A Small, Agile & Efficient Military
The solution found by the Egyptian planners was studied by the IDF even before the Yom-Kippur War ended. One of the primary procurement and training efforts, even during the war itself, concerned antitank weapons for use by the IDF infantry units. Initially, this need was fulfilled by the one-shot M72 LAW Light Antitank Weapons, delivered by the US airlift (US Operation Nickel Grass). Subsequently, BGM-71 TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided/Wireless) missile systems were delivered as well. The latter weapons were employed operationally for the first time only in incidents that occurred after the cease fire had come into effect on the Egyptian front.
After the war, the IDF devoted substantial efforts to the acquisition of antitank missile systems for dedicated units established for this purpose, like the antitank brigade, the dedicated antitank companies of the infantry brigades and subsequently – dedicated antitank battalions incorporated into the order of battle of the armored divisions. The majority of these forces relied on the TOW system – IDF designation "Orev", but additional units were established that used captured Sagger missiles – IDF designation "Sna'ee".
These units gained practical experience mainly during the First Lebanon War when they were employed, with relative success, opposite the tanks of the Syrian Army that operated in Lebanon. Since that time, the dedicated antitank missile units and their specialized resources were almost never employed on the battlefield.
The various initiatives and projects of the IDF intended to enable the military to become smaller, more agile and more efficient, included the incorporation of dedicated units that employed cutting-edge antitank missile systems. The Israeli defense industry invested substantial efforts in the development of such systems – which yielded impressive achievements with regard to the range, accuracy and effectiveness of the new weapons, especially against enemy armored targets.
The changes in the nature of warfare generally and in the theaters of operations of the IDF along the borders of the State of Israel in particular minimized the need for the engagement of enemy armored targets. The inclusion of the precision guided munition units in the last operations in Lebanon and in the Gaza Strip seemed somewhat strained and was intended, in most cases, to boost morale among their own troopers. The precision characteristics of the modern weapon systems were used wisely in order to engage targets – not always high-value targets – on very few occasions. Soon thereafter, the dedicated antitank companies and even the elite forces assigned to the antitank brigade, were employed in the context of standard infantry missions.
The Israeli defense industries continue to perfect the weapon systems they manufacture, including their antitank missile systems. Along with other armed forces, the IDF continues to acquire these cutting-edge systems, of the same categories that once provided solutions opposite armored maneuvering elements. Apparently, on the future battlefield, as was the case in the last few decades, these systems will be employed to engage second-rate targets which are not the kind of targets they had been designed to engage.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Dr. Dani Asher is a military historian and researcher who specializes among other things in the Yom Kippur War. His book titled 'The Egyptian Strategy for the Yom Kippur War' was published in the USA in 2009. (The Egyptian Strategy for the Yom Kippur War, McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, USA, 2009, 276 Pages)