Monday, July 21, 2014

A game-changer in battlefield artillery support?

There's been intense interest in the discovery of a new Israeli implementation of its Spike NLOS (Non Line Of Sight) long-range battlefield missile system during its current operations in and around Gaza.  Israel appears to have taken a number of its older-generation Magach tanks (themselves upgrades of US M48 and M60 tanks, no longer in front-line service with the IDF) and given them new turrets containing large quantities of these precision missiles.  The cannon appears to have been replaced by a dummy unit, judging by the way it droops in some of the photographs doing the rounds.  (It would probably have been easier to remove it entirely, but I suppose it helps mislead the enemy as to the nature of the tanks seen running around the battlefield, concealing the precision fire support role of the new units.)

Here are several images of the new Magach version gleaned from the Internet over the past few days.  They've appeared in so many different publications and on so many different sites that I've no idea who to credit for them.  I apologize for any inadvertent breach of copyright, and will put up a credit to the originator if that can be proved.

Note the raised blocky antenna structure in the third picture above.  That appears to be a key element of the missile guidance system.  In the picture below (of an Israeli M113-based system) you can see the three-missile launch unit ahead of its guidance unit.  Note the similarity to the curved metal plate antenna shown above.

Note also the number of missile containers revealed in the last of the four Magach pictures above.  It suggests the new missile carriers are armed with at least a dozen Spike NLOS missiles, perhaps more, all protected by the tank's heavy armor.  That's a pretty impressive payload when you consider what this missile can do.

The NLOS is the longest-ranged version of the Spike missile family.  It's widely claimed to have a range in excess of 25 kilometers (16 miles).  Here's a picture of four Spike NLOS missiles in service with South Korea.  They're on the back of a truck during a parade.  Note the large cruciform wing structure.

Those wings enable the NLOS to fly more slowly than the shorter-ranged, smaller models of the Spike family, so that it can be guided very precisely using either its own sensor, or those on board battlefield drone aircraft or deployed by ground observers.  It can be autonomous, guiding itself, or controlled by an operator.  Here's an Israeli video showing one being deployed at long range in southern Lebanon against a Hezbollah stronghold.  Note how it homes in on a specific window in the target building from 20 km (12½ miles) away.  That's outstanding precision by anyone's standards.

To my mind the interesting thing isn't the missile (which has been around for a long time, and is now in its second or third generation);  nor is it the modified tank that's carrying it.  I'm interested in seeing how this development affects battlefield doctrine and tactics.  For years infantry and armor have relied on artillery support.  Some has been local (mortars, light rockets and small missiles carried by platoons and companies;  forward-deployed light artillery;  self-propelled artillery and heavy mortars accompanying tanks, or following close behind them).  More has been distant (emplaced artillery firing on enemy positions reported to it by front-line troops or artillery observers accompanying them).  Still more has been in the form of aircraft dropping bombs or firing missiles or cannon.

If sufficient quantities of a high-accuracy precision weapon like Spike NLOS can be carried by the front-line troops themselves, in vehicles that are as resistant to enemy fire as the main battle tanks that will bear the brunt of the fighting, this means that a great deal of the support artillery 'tail' can be left out of the equation.  Front-line commanders now have under their control their own organic artillery support.  Collateral damage will be minimized, because each missile can be very precisely guided (as shown in the video above).  This will also reduce to a minimum the wastage of ammunition normally encountered with conventional artillery, where dozens or scores of rounds must be fired to neutralize a single target.  Spike NLOS effectively makes this "one missile, one target", thereby greatly reducing the quantity of (very heavy and bulky) ammunition resupply needed in the battle zone.  In fact, since they're well protected by their own armor and accompanying infantry support, missile tanks may even be able to go back to pick up more weapons under their own power, then return to the front lines, thus reducing the need for hazardous resupply by truck or helicopter.

It goes even further.  Spike NLOS and similar missiles can be (and have been) mounted on patrol boats to secure the coastline.  What if an army unit is operating near the coast, and has in its possession the consoles and control software needed to take over control of missiles fired from vessels just offshore, directing them onto targets only the army can see?  Gaza is just such a fight, with the Mediterranean Sea only a few miles from the fighting.  This might be a huge force multiplier for the IDF.  In theory a fleet of patrol craft can carry dozens, scores, even hundreds of such missiles, launching them on demand.  The army's own missiles can be held in reserve, or deployed to more distant areas where naval-launched missiles can't reach.

This may be a technological game-changer as far as company- and battalion-strength operations are concerned, eliminating much of the conventional supporting artillery 'tail' and empowering such formations to proceed independently at much greater speed than before - not to mention inflicting much greater surgical-strike precision damage on the enemy.  I'll be watching with great interest to see how this evolves under operational conditions.



Angus McThag said...

The really astonishing thing about this system is how OLD it is.

And we're just now noticing?

It's slightly newer than the FOG-M and looks just like it... If you don't remember the FOG-M, don't worry; it didn't make production. We improved the TOW slightly and bought Javelin instead.

Rolf said...

So, a few dozen light patrol boats owned by Iran, with some sort of NorK or ChiCom knock-off mounted five to a boat, trying to tie up the straights of Hormuz. Could get ugly.

David said...

I was in the battery at Ft. Bliss, Texas which first tested the FOG-M/NLOS back in the late 80's. Amazingly accurate, relatively simple technology. It's main limitation was the length of fiber optic which it could carry, but even then, technology was being developed which could have taken it out to 100 km, maybe beyond. Never understood why we didn't buy it.

Peter said...

@Angus: Yes, FOG-M was the first US attempt to produce this sort of weapon. Another was the XM-501 NLOS missile, cancelled in 2011 (which would have offered greater range and hitting power than Spike NLOS).

@Rolf: Yes, that's a nightmare scenario for many naval planners. It's entirely feasible from a technological perspective.

@David: I suspect a lot of the resistance to the concept came from the regular artillery and fire support people. To have a fully automated system would threaten their jobs and career paths. I've seen that before all too many times . . . Israel, on the other hand, doesn't give a damn about service politics. It wants systems that will save the lives of its servicemen.

jon spencer said...

Look at what is going on with mortar rounds, 20km range, correctable targeting in flight and a CEP of two meters or less.

Coconut said...

I suppose the reason for the tank platform is so that anything other than a direct hit in the way of counter-battery fire won't affect them?

Can't quite see how the missiles get OUT of the vehicle.

Sometimes it seems a bit strange how long it takes for armies to adopt an old technology.

Would've thought it would have been mounted on the back of a land-rover first, though.

Paul said...

Looks pretty good. I'm sure the IDF has integrated it pretty well into there SOP a they need to fight very smart to be as effective as they are.

The enemy has numbers, which is a power the Chinese have used in the past, but this could change even that metric.

Put some daisy cutters in these rockets and with the modified tank and off shore boats they could clear a battlefield of any infantry.

It will be interesting to watch this iteration of the endless war play out.

clark myers said...

Agreed it matters but IMHO more because it's organic.

The Sheridan with a Shillelagh was never a great success (see David Drake's comments on the Sheridan without the Shillelagh).

The net effect of NLOS - tanks after all do fine for line of sight artillery - is much like Thoth as seen in Pournelle's Prince of Sparta where kick the weapons out and give the ground forces control - takes the Air Force Combat Controller out of the picture. That is follows the general trend of flattening control as seen in any industry. A good thing, but neither the hardware nor the idea seems all that new to me. The precision at all levels from Designated Marksman to NLOS organic to the smaller units is good.

Will said...

Some years back, I saw a program about a weapon system that the army wanted no parts of. Probably because it was cheap, easy to use, and didn't have, or need, any cushy jobs for high ranking retirees.

Just needed a jeep or similar vehicle for transport, to carry a box of vertical launched, fibre optic guided armor killers. Small missile with a camera in the nose, and a guy with a joystick. Loft it high above the battlefield, nose over, and look for a target. May have been throttle capable. Pick which hatch cover or drive sprocket you want to hit, and BAM! Box held at least a dozen, maybe more. Enough range to sit on the other side of the hills from where the battle was.

Think it was a couple of ex-military guys designed it. Don't recall the cost, but VERY cheap. I think heads should have rolled for turning this down.