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Israel Designs Antiarmor Missile To Fire Out of Tank Guns

February 1999
By Mark H. Kagan

Laser-guided weapon also would provide antihelicopter capability.

Israel is developing a laser-guided antitank/antihelicopter missile that will be fired out of tank guns instead of from missile launchers.  In its antihelicopter role, the missile would enable tanks to defend themselves against fast-moving helicopters that can fire antitank missiles from beyond the effective range of conventional tank gun projectiles or onboard machine guns.

The missile’s designers claim that it will penetrate both the latest, as well as next-generation, advanced tank armors, which may be impenetrable to conventional 105- and 120-millimeter tank projectiles. The missile’s laser guidance system would also allow it to make in-flight corrections to compensate for evasive tactics by helicopter pilots and tank drivers. This correction capability is not currently possible with conventional tank rounds.

The missile, named the Lahat, was unveiled late last year. The MBT division of the electronics group of Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), Yehud Industrial Zone, Tel Aviv, was the designer and developer. Development was an internal initiative that IAI began in 1992.

The company has successfully tested the missile and warhead separately and is currently looking for funding from a potential customer to begin testing of the missile and warhead as a single unit. The firm projects that a full engineering and manufacturing development program would make it possible to put the Lahat into high-rate production in less than two years.

The Lahat would significantly increase a tank’s effective engagement range and greatly increase its first-round probability of hit and probability of kill, according to company officials. The range performance of the Lahat is classified, but the current maximum effective range of Western-designed 105- and 120-millimeter tank guns is 2,000 to 3,000 meters. By comparison, the Russian-made AT-10 Stabber, AT-11 Sniper and AT-12 Sheksna, which are also gun-launched antitank missiles, have maximum effective ranges of 4,000 to 5,000 meters.

Israeli tank gunner training emphasizes sniper marksmanship training, which can achieve a maximum first-round kill performance of about 90 percent. However, this performance level is not uniform even among Israeli tank gunners, and it degrades under the pressures of combat. The Lahat is designed to achieve a 95 percent probability of kill under most conditions.

IAI contends that the combination of increased effective engagement range and the Lahat’s increased first-round probability of kill would greatly improve a tank’s survivability in the modern battlefield. This increased capability would justify the projected unit cost of $20,000 (depending on the overall procurement quantity), especially because a tank would carry only a limited number of missiles in its magazine. The Lahat’s anticipated cost is approximately six times the current unit cost of a conventional M829A2 armor piercing fin stabilized discarding sabot 120-millimeter projectile manufactured by Alliant Techsystems, Hopkins, Minnesota. Alliant is one of the two U.S. producers of tank gun ammunition. The M829A2 kinetic energy round does not have the designed antihelicopter capability of the Lahat.

Tanks armed with either a 105-millimeter or a 120-millimeter gun would be able to fire the Lahat by using appropriately sized sabots for each caliber. The weapon is less than one meter in length—the same as a conventional tank gun projectile—and the entire missile plus warhead will weigh less than 20 kilograms.

The Lahat will be launched from the tank gun barrel using its own rocket motor, which is ignited in the gun chamber. The ostensibly similar Russian AT-10, AT-11 and AT-12 antitank missiles, which are already in production, fire from tank guns like regular tank rounds, using separate propellant charges before their rocket motors ignite.

The missile is designed to carry a tandem warhead that was developed for another system already in use with the Israeli Defense Forces. The warhead will have a normal top-attack default option for use against tanks, but it can be switched to the direct-attack mode for use against helicopters. In the top-attack mode, the missile will be able to strike tanks in their much thinner and more vulnerable top armor.

The top-attack mode, combined with the missile’s velocity, would reportedly enable it to overcome active protection systems that tanks might carry. According to IAI officials, active protection systems are primarily designed to counter horizontal threats and are relatively ineffective against high angle-of-attack impact weapons. A company official hints that the Lahat might also carry embedded active protection system countermeasure capabilities.

During the firing sequence, the tank’s fire control system would transfer data to the electronics contained in the missile’s shell casing to program the missile for either top attack or direct attack.

A laser designator mounted on the tank would guide the Lahat. This approach is unlike that of the missile’s Russian counterparts, which use laser-beam-riding guidance, or the U.S. Shillelagh missile, which uses infrared homing guidance. According to IAI officials, the Lahat laser designator would replace a tank’s current laser range finder, although final selection of a designator would depend on the chosen platform and the customer.

Guidance of the Lahat to a target could also be from a laser designator positioned independently of the tank, in a fashion similar to the U.S. Copperhead artillery projectile or the Hellfire missile. This would give a tank both beyond visual range and day and night capabilities.

Analysts have mixed opinions about the Lahat’s performance. Steven J. Zaloga, a defense analyst with Teal Group Corporation, Fairfax, Virginia, does not believe that there would be much interest in the missile from the United States or other North Atlantic Treaty Organization armies.

“I’m not so sure that this type of ammunition will necessarily provide the tactical advantages that IAI is claiming,” Zaloga relates. “The real rationale for the Lahat is to provide an alternative to high-cost, high-technology fire control systems. It will allow you to have a less expensive fire control system and still have a number of rounds that will have fairly good accuracy at extended ranges, like three kilometers.”

Western armies are willing to invest in expensive, but highly effective, fire control systems and sights for their tank, while using relatively inexpensive ammunition, according to Zaloga.  He suggests that the missile would find a limited international market in countries that possess older models of tanks armed with 105-millimeter guns. These include U.S.-made M48s and M60A1s or British-made Centurions and Chieftains.

Instead of spending $500,000 to $700,000 per tank for  contemporary state-of-the-art fire control systems, countries owning older tanks could spend $50,000 for each laser designator and then buy a limited number of Lahats—perhaps three or four—per tank.  This would give each tank a limited long-range engagement capability for only $100,000 to $150,000 per tank.

Zaloga emphasizes that this is the type of niche, retrofit market in which Israel typically excels. He adds that even Russian tanks typically carry only four to six guided missile rounds, out of a total magazine load of 40 to 45 rounds, because of the expense.

Zaloga also does not believe that the missile’s longer effective range against tanks or its antihelicopter capability would make it any more attractive to Western armies. “The longer engagement range doesn’t mean much if you don’t also have a fire control system that would be able to offer reliable target identification out at those ranges.” Against helicopters, Zaloga believes that much less expensive options exist, such as the U.S.-made multipurpose fuze for high explosive antitank rounds. “If you’re really concerned about the helicopter threat, you don’t buy a tank round for it. You buy some type of antiaircraft missile, or you buy something cheap like a multipurpose round.”

Gregory I. Fetter, a senior defense analyst at Forecast International/DMS, Greenwich, Connecticut, has an opposite view on many issues regarding the missile. “If it works as advertised, it certainly will enhance the countertank capability of tanks,” Fetter relates.

Unlike Zaloga, Fetter asserts that the United States, as well as the United Kingdom and Germany, is strongly interested in achieving longer engagement ranges. “There is an extended-range guided projectile program underway in the U.S. Army right now, and they are talking about 5,000 to 7,000 meters,” says Fetter. Western armies are also concerned about developments in armor protection that would make future tanks more impervious to direct attack rounds, at least in a tank’s frontal arc, even by 120-millimeter projectiles.

These concerns are what led to the 140-millimeter tank gun development program. A combination of limited funding and second thoughts about a tank that is able to carry only 20 rounds of ammunition resulted in the program becoming dormant. However, Fetter asserts, the concerns have not become dormant.

“One way to get around the negative tradeoffs of using a 140-millimeter gun would be to use a missile with smart guidance that could achieve the longer range and greater accuracy that everyone wants,” Fetter says. “If it works, it would be a significant development and, within limitations, it would be a fairly successful weapon.”

Disagreeing with Zaloga, Fetter believes the Lahat’s antihelicopter capability would be a major selling point because of the perceived major threat of helicopters to tanks. “Even if the Lahat costs $20,000 per round, the cost-benefit ratio is positive if the missile destroys a helicopter that costs $3 million,” Fetter says. The U.S. Army is currently pursuing a longer-range tank round for the M1A1 and an antihelicopter round in at least three different programs. “This missile could basically take care of both the long-range antitank and antihelicopter roles in one round.”

Fetter and Zaloga agree about the limitations inherent in a laser-guided weapon, although it would still be more capable than the Russian AT-10, AT-11 and AT-12, which are laser-beam-riding guided missiles. “I’ve never been a fan of laser-guided weapons, primarily because if the laser is disrupted for any reason, then the weapon is nearly worthless,” Fetter says. Zaloga relates that laser guidance is easier to bluff or disrupt than other types of guidance approaches. “You can basically just put up smoke and interrupt the guidance beam, and in moist weather conditions the laser beam can become diffracted,” he explains. Furthermore, a laser-warning device is the first piece of countermeasures equipment included in active protection systems.

Fetter believes that the best potential opportunity for the Lahat would be if the United States picked up its development in the foreign weapons technology program. There is a market for the missile, but Israel would probably have to go in with a joint U.S. development program to give the Lahat a greater market potential around the world, Fetter contends. IAI has teamed with General Dynamics Ordnance Systems, Burlington, Vermont, to market the Lahat.

David P. Murphy, a senior weapons analyst with Delex Systems, Arlington, Virginia,  agrees with Fetter on most points, but adds that the Lahat system could also fulfill a U.S. naval requirement if it could be configured for either a 76-millimeter or 127-millimeter projectile. These are the two major gun calibers used by the Navy, he adds. “Such a guided projectile, which would be relatively cheap, would give U.S. Navy ships a greater ability to defend themselves in brownwater operations against hostile fast motorboats,” says Murphy.