The IDF Encounters the Sagger Missile


Merkava Mk 4m Windbreaker, fitted with Trophy Active Protection System, during Operation Protective Edge 2014. The Merkava Mk 4m Windbreaker is a Merkava Mk IV equipped with the Trophy active protection system (APS) designated “Meil Ruach” (Hebrew: מעיל רוח‎‎; “Windbreaker” or “Wind Coat”). The system was operational by the end of 2007. The serial production of Merkava Mk 4m tanks started in 2009 and the first whole brigade of Merkava Mk 4m tanks was declared operational in 2011. The Trophy APS successfully intercepted RPG rounds and anti-tank guided missiles, including the 9M133 Kornet, fired by Hamas before and during Operation Protective Edge in 2014.


World War II saw the early development of lightweight devices to fight tanks. There were already many antitank guns in use by all combatants, including the German 88 millimeter and the British 17-pounder, but something lighter, to be used by a single infantryman or at most a team of two, was sorely needed. What’s more, paratroopers, deep in enemy territory, were really defenseless against tanks. The development of the Munroe effect into a light armor-piercing warhead, the penetration capability of which did not depend on the velocity of the projectile, gave rise to a multitude of light rocket weapons tipped with a “hollow charge.” Among them were the British PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank); the German Panzerfaust (Armor Fist), from which evolved the Soviet RPG antitank rocket series; and the later Panzerschreck (Armor Fright), which was really copied from American bazookas captured in North Africa. All these, however, were short-range, unguided weapons, and their hit probability depended much on the operator. NATO’s awareness of the Warsaw Pact’s numerical superiority in armor boosted development of efficient antitank guided weapons as force-multipliers that would enable NATO forces to counter a Soviet attack with somewhat better odds. The first generation of these developments included the French SS-10, the German Mamba, the British Vigilant, and many similar ones.

The advantages inherent in these weapons were understood in the Soviet Union, too, and a series of similar weapons were developed there. One of these was the Sagger, a wire-controlled missile of the first generation that was widely supplied to Warsaw Pact countries and other friendly allies. The Egyptian army was one of the recipients of these missiles in the sixties, but for several reasons, the overall effect of this novel technology on ground fighting was not appreciated by the IDF’s high command.

Toward the end of the 1956 war (the so-called Suez Campaign), the IDF received from France the SS-10 (and later the more advanced SS-11). These too were first-generation missiles and thus had a low hit probability. The IDF kept them for a while but soon decided they were inefficient and discarded them. Instead, it turned to tank gunnery and achieved world-class capabilities, both in ammunition design and in high-accuracy shooting. Consequently, it became an article of faith that missiles were useless for the IDF and, by projection, that they would be useless for the enemy. This was the classic mistake of attributing your way of thinking to the enemy.

Furthermore, during two wars, the mass flight of Egyptian soldiers at the sight of Israeli armor, and news media photographs of piles of discarded shoes in the desert, convinced the IDF that infantry is not really a significant factor in armored warfare and tanks can manage well enough without their “supporting” infantry, which runs around with only a shirt on their backs. The result was that in the IDF, APC (armored personnel carrier) carrying of armored infantry was atrophied, with the hope that this would reduce casualties.

The Arab armies, with massive Soviet tutoring, copied a page from NATO’s handbook: if you can’t cope with the enemy’s armor because of its numerical or qualitative superiority, then the solution is to adopt armor-circumventing devices—in other words, guided missiles. The Soviets, who figured it out, convinced the Arabs that massive salvos of missiles and rockets would compensate for the poor hit probability of the single missile. So in the early sixties, the Soviets supplied the Arabs with the Sagger’s predecessors, the Snapper and the Swatter, although these missiles never came into use.

But the Sagger and its supply to the Arab armies was not really a secret. Before the 1973 war, an Israeli military magazine alluded to the Sagger in the context of the Egyptian army. The IDF’s military intelligence published several technical papers on the missile and antitank doctrine in the Arab armies, including the massive infusion of RPG rockets into infantry formations.

Yet all this information about new weapons and the new combat doctrine, based on wholesale quantities of missiles and rockets, did not “percolate” downward to those who might encounter it, particularly the reserve formations. The new threat was not really understood, and no effort was made to prepare for it. There was even a rumor that the minister of defense did not know of the missile’s existence. This failure reached a new height when the Israeli R&D establishment was not consulted about countermeasures, nor were they even informed of it, because this topic was “top secret.” It was never made clear from whom it was to be kept a secret, and who stamped it as such. Here also we encounter the question of what the intelligence community’s role (or duty) is in “pushing” such information to those who might make use of it.

The fact that the IDF’s technical intelligence branches knew about these new weapons apparently was not enough. In 1993, an Israeli researcher wrote in the IDF professional magazine, “All this information did not make the Israeli operational planner understand the threat posed by missiles. The intelligence officer—who did not analyze the missile’s contribution to the Egyptians’ (and the Syrians’) combat doctrine and the capability it conferred on them by the concentrated use of tank hunting teams on the [canal’s] beachhead—could not create a possible fighting scenario for the enemy.” A similar mistake was made a decade later, when after the total defeat of their air force (at an 80:0 ratio) in 1982, the Syrians started acquiring ballistic missiles. “While statements to that effect were made publicly by the Syrian leadership, most Israeli analysts and military planners failed to appreciate the significance of this development” (Rubin 2001, 21).

In the 1973 war, the use of missiles, combined with the RPGs, caused an unpleasant surprise, contributing to a feeling of helplessness, which initially affected all armor operations during that war. But the root of the problem was contained in the above quoted sentences about “the Israeli operational planner” and “the intelligence officer—who did not analyze the missile’s contribution to . . . combat doctrine.” The important connection between the technological capability and its significance on the battlefield was not comprehended, and the technology by itself, though fascinating, was meaningless.

Trophy and the MBT’s Active Defense Affair

Another type of technological failures occurs when weapons (or technologies) with the potential to effect major change on the battlefield are available, but because of misled thinking are not introduced. This too can often be traced to misunderstanding the threat.

There is an old saying that “He who was scalded by boiling water will be careful even with tepid water.” This is an old form of the concept “lesson learned.” Unfortunately, the process of arriving at correct and practical conclusions and their application often leaves something to be desired. The IDF’s initial failure to understand the crucial role of antitank guided missiles begat another poison fruit.

The 1973 war was a watershed for armored warfare. It unequivocally focused the possibilities of fighting heavy armor by means of infantry-operated missiles and provided the first practical support for the theories on the subject. Everybody sat up and took notice, and everybody who could joined the club. Hundreds of papers were published on the subject. But concurrently, it became apparent that in order to survive, armored forces had to do something better than tack on more steel. Unfortunately, except for some stillborn ideas and the application of “instant smoke,” which in any case could be used only after the first missiles were fired, not much was done. Israel was the first to introduce the “reactive armor” Blazer system. After some tanks so equipped were lost in 1982, the technology was compromised and a countermeasure, the Tandem warhead, was developed and is now widely used. Furthermore, APCs remained vulnerable as before because even reactive armor needed a hefty layer behind it to be really effective. Israel developed the heavy APC, based on a tank’s hull, but large-diameter hollow charges could still penetrate them. Again, something better was needed.

The world’s navies had once had a similar problem—of antiship missiles. They understood that their thin-hulled ships weren’t able to survive the growing threat, but they could not guarantee the destruction of launching platforms—shore batteries, aircraft, or other ships—before they opened fire. The solution was self-evident: intercept and destroy the approaching threat. Consequently, several such systems were developed, including the American Phalanx and the Israeli Barak. These are the active defense systems that “hard kill” the threat instead of decoying or spoofing its guidance (a “soft kill”).

In Israel, military leaders came to the same conclusion about tanks. Only an active defense (hard kill) would fit the bill. Such a defense system would detect the approaching missile, no matter whose product it was or what its guidance system, and destroy it at a safe distance.

After several years of strenuous effort, such a system was developed in Israel and was ready in 2005. This system was named Trophy. There was only one problem: it was very expensive—in the vicinity of $200,000 per tank. Somewhere along the line, somebody made a decision: because the Israeli Air Force had a budgetary priority, the defensive system for tanks would be mothballed until further notice. In fact, Major General Yiftah Ron-Tal, the chief of the IDF Ground Forces Command, said it explicitly: “One of the most important programs I was unable to implement due to budget constraints is a locally developed system for active protection. In my opinion, the deployment of this technology will be as revolutionary to land warfare as was the introduction of the combat helicopter to the battlefield” (Eshel 2006; Ron-Tal 2005). Unfortunately, this was at a time when strong voices claimed that classical, conventional warfare was a thing of the past and future conflicts would be of the low-intensity type or mass-destruction warfare by means of long-range missile and other ordnance. In both these kinds of warfare, tanks would have almost no role, and the tank corps should be downsized or even disbanded as an independent entity. In the Middle East, where geopolitical environments sometimes change overnight, this was an extremely shortsighted attitude.

In June 2006, the Second Lebanon War erupted, and two things became clear: that tanks still had an important role on the battlefield, and that although the Merkava tank provided better protection to the crew, there was a place for improvements against missiles. A tank that had its track shot off was no better than a sixty-ton stationary mound of metal. A calculation was made that even if several dozen tanks were equipped with the very expensive active protection system, it would still be less costly than the refurbishment or replacement of disabled or destroyed tanks, and that before factoring in casualties.

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