Security and Defense: ‘The air force of the ground forces’

The Artillery Corps is gunning for a key role in any future conflict by becoming a force that relies much more on precision-strike capabilities.

By
October 1, 2010 16:34
Artillery solder jumping

Artillery solder jumping 311. (photo credit: Eddie Gerald)

During Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip last year, the IDF’s Southern Command set up a unique command center, seating around a single table a representative from the air force, the navy, the ground forces and the various intelligence agencies.

The system worked quite simply. The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) or Military Intelligence would provide the location of a specific target – a top Hamas operative, a terror cell or a weapons cache – and the representatives sitting in the command post would decide which of the available assets in the field would be used to attack it – a fighter plane, a navy vessel, a tank or a cannon.

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This had not always been the case. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, each IDF branch had its own command post. The consequence was quite obvious – the air force did not always know what the ground forces were doing and vice versa.

With the new command posts, in most cases, the attacks were carried out by the air force, due to a plane’s ability to put a bomb exactly on target with minimal collateral damage. Rarely were targets handed over to the artillery, whose 155 mm. shell has a deviation of dozens of meters and can easily miss a target.

This is changing, and in a future conflict, if it gets its way, the Artillery Corps could become as decisive a player as the IAF’s F-16s and F-15s. In the past 18 months, the Artillery Corps has made an impressive technological leap with the integration of new weapons systems giving it the ability to launch precision strikes against enemy targets.

It is for this reason, that Chief Artillery Officer Brig.-Gen. David Swissa calls the corps “the air force of the ground forces.”

The need for accurate-strike capabilities is a derivative of the type of conflicts Israel faces against Hamas and Hizbullah. In both cases, the enemy has intentionally positioned itself within an urban setting and inside civilian infrastructure, using mosques, hospitals and private homes as storage centers for its weaponry and launch pads for its rockets and missiles.

“We need to be able to hit targets accurately,” Swissa explains. “This is why the Artillery Corps is progressing to become a force that relies much more on precision-strike capabilities.”

The advance in technology is part of the corps’s way of adapting itself and becoming itself more relevant on the modern battlefield. During the Second Lebanon War, for example, it fired 177,000 shells into Lebanon without having an impact on the rate of rocket attacks against the North.

For this reason, it is pushing forward a plan to procure new precision rocket and missile systems.

One system is the Accular, a 160 mm. GPS-guided rocket developed by Israel Military Industries (IMI) which has a range of 40 km. and circular error probable of under 10 meters.

Behind the requirement to procure rockets with superior accuracy is an overall IDF desire to more effectively utilize its resources. Due to international law constraints, it will be limited in its use of cluster munitions, particularly in Lebanon.

In addition, this new capability will allow the IAF to focus on strategic targets deep in enemy territory, while the Artillery Corps focuses on targets within a 40 km. range of the border.

The corps already has some accurate munitions, used by an elite unit called Meitar, although much of what this unit does is classified and banned for publication. All that officers are willing to say is that in recent years its capabilities have grown significantly, enabling it to hit targets faster and at ranges farther away. But these are munitions used in special circumstances. The new missiles like the Accular would completely alter the way the ground battle is fought.

If someone wants to get a real taste of what the Artillery Corps is about, it is worth paying a visit to the Golan Heights, the main training ground for its various units stationed in a number of different bases throughout the North.

One unit is the “Thunder” Battalion, which operates the multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) purchased from the US in 1994. With Israeli technological add-ons over the years, it has developed into possibly the most devastating weapon in the IDF’s land-based arsenal.

“Our slogan is ‘Farther, Stronger and Accurate‚’” explains Lt.-Col. Dov Cohen, the battalion commander. “Its advantage is that it has a very rapid rate of fire, can automatically load itself and can launch to distances with great accuracy.”

The only problem is that the MLRS is not relevant for urban warfare. The rockets it fires carry cluster bombs and essentially explode in midair, dispersing hundreds of small bomblets. This makes it extremely effective against enemy combatants and vehicles in open areas, but its use in civilian areas is extremely controversial due to the relatively large number of bomblets that do not explode and later cause collateral damage.

On the other hand, the recent decision to purchase a new revolutionary cluster bomb made by IMI which has a self-destruct mechanism and destroys itself even if it does not detonate could enable its limited use in an asymmetric conflict.

Another technological advance is the deployment several weeks ago of a new phased array radar along the northern border that is capable of tracking rockets and immediately pinpointing the location of their launch sites.

“This provides us with the ability to not only know where the missile is going to hit but also to immediately attack the launcher and the people who launched it,” Swissa says.

Called Raz by the IDF, the new radar – developed by Israel Aerospace Industries subsidiary Elta Systems – can hook up to cannons and other offensive platforms which can within seconds attack the launcher. According to Swissa, with Raz it can take as little as 25 seconds for the Artillery Corps or any other available asset to attack the rocket launch site.

The Artillery Corps is also now responsible for operating unmanned aerial vehicles within the Ground Forces Command. Until now, the use of UAVs was restricted to the air force, but with the decision a few years ago to create a drone capability for battalions, the Artillery Corps was put in charge. On October 10, it will inaugurate the new unit called “Sky Rider,” which will operate Elbit Systems’ Skylark I UAV.

This does not mean the IDF has plans to decommission the M109 self-propelled 155 mm. howitzer. In a future conflict with Hizbullah, for example, artillery will be needed to provide support for ground forces as they maneuver into enemy territory. “A maneuvering force requires artillery support,” Swissa explains. “It is mostly used in open areas and on the outskirts of villages.”

Artillery features regularly in military exercises, working in close coordination with infantry units, which use it to suppress the enemy as they advance. To improve coordination between the units and the effectiveness of the artillery fire, Ground Forces Command has deployed artillery support officers, responsible for coordinating between the infantry and the artillery, in every battalion.


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