The ground-based squadron guarding the Syrian border
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The ground-based squadron guarding the Syrian border

With Wednesday’s alleged use by Assad’s forces of chemical weapons plunging the Syrian conflict to a new nadir, the Tammuz missile provides a vital line of defense on the northern frontier

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

A close-up of the Tammuz missile system, which is equipped with day and night cameras. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
A close-up of the Tammuz missile system, which is equipped with day and night cameras. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

During the Second Lebanon War, which ended seven years ago this month, an IDF reconnaissance team, entrenched in the ground above Rashef in south Lebanon, was tasked with​ a dual mission – to relay intelligence about the village to the divisional command and, if needed, to call in direct fire on the enemy.

After several days of quiet, the team’s commander spotted Hezbollah activity, including an armed motorcyclist coming and going from what appeared to be a command structure. He radioed the air force, asking for a strike, but was told that the IAF was otherwise engaged. Instead, the special forces officer, who had worked with the air force repeatedly during his years of service in south Lebanon, was put in touch with a standard artillery battalion.

The officer called in the exact coordinates of the structure. The rounds fell in the open. You missed, he reported.

The artillery battery provided more fire. You missed again, he said.

This repeated itself several times until finally the artillery officer told the commander in the field that rounds landing within several hundred meters of the coordinates were considered a direct hit under the circumstances and therefore he had fulfilled his mission and was moving on to other targets.

The special forces officer, who knew that one of the brigades in the division was set to invade the village soon, could do nothing but shrug bitterly and repeat that the structure had not been scratched.

Today, artillery officers say, that kind of scenario is increasingly unlikely. The once belittled artillery corps has swelled in size by 30 percent over the past four years, and today sees itself as far more than just a support mechanism for the frontline troops. Aside from operating the portable, man-launched Skylark UAVs for infantry troops and the see-shoot network of radars, it has switched its focus from pulverizing curved-trajectory shells to guided rockets – a shift that began during the Second Lebanon War and has intensified in the interim.

A soldier training with the man-portable and hand-launched skylark mini UAV (Photo credit: Courtesy: Cpl. Zev Marmorstein/ IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
A soldier training with the man-portable and hand-launched Skylark mini UAV. (photo credit: Courtesy: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

“The corps is not going through a significant change – it has gone through one,” said Maj. Efi Mizrachi, the head instructor at the Artillery Field School, who spoke to the Times of Israel during a recent drill.

The primary reason for the change is that artillery, which rose to its gruesomely effective peak during the trench warfare of WWI, is ill-suited to the modern Middle Eastern battlefield, where gunmen and rocket squads hide among civilians, and the political leadership of terror organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah leverage every civilian death in the furtherance of their cause.

The chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, ably summarized the situation in March when, during a speech at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, he said that, in the past, a commander would circle civilian populations on the map and make sure to keep all combat operations beyond those areas. Today, he said, it is exactly within those circles that the combat operations must be launched. “We no longer have the privilege of not dealing with it,” he stated.

‘If I don’t have precision artillery, I don’t shoot. Maybe they did so in the past, but there are civilians everywhere. This is no place for a statistical weapon’

Gantz has since unveiled a dramatic shift in the IDF’s future plans, focusing on unmanned air-naval-and-land craft and intelligence capacities, along with other advanced systems, while saving on armor and artillery and personnel.

For Israel and the IDF’s artillery corps, the issue of fighting an enemy embedded within a civilian population rose to the surface during the siege of Beirut in 1982, and has become more central with every subsequent conflict. In south Lebanon in April 1996, during Operation Grapes of Wrath, a force under the command of the current Minister of the Economy, Naftali Bennett, called for artillery cover while under fire; four of the rounds landed in a nearby UN base – its proximity serving as a key tactical asset for Hezbollah – and killed 102 civilians and wounded 100 more, including seven UN employees. Israel brought the entire operation to an abrupt halt.

In Gaza, and particularly during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, the high civilian death toll threatened not only the operation itself but Israel’s international standing as well.

A senior officer in the Southern Command, peering into the dense urban landscape of Bet Lahiya, told the Times of Israel during a recent tour of the Gaza border that, “If I don’t have precision artillery, I don’t shoot. Maybe they did so in the past, but there are civilians everywhere. This is no place for a statistical weapon.”

The same is true along the Syrian border, where Israel has for more than two years watched the unfolding of the vicious civil war — which reached a new nadir on Wednesday with the alleged use of chemical weapons by regime forces to kill hundreds.

Israel has not been immune to the conflict, and has responded to recent cross-border fire on the Golan Heights on at least four occasions. Each time it has used the Tammuz missile. A GPS-equipped, operator-guided, Non Line of Sight missile, the Tammuz can be mounted on an armed personnel carrier, or even transported by foot into the field. With a maximum range of some 25 kilometers, it is the flagship weapon of the artillery corps — the symbol of the transformation from rear-echelon support to what a company commander in the unit, Captain A, said in a phone interview was, akin to “the air force of the ground troops.”

In fact, Brig. Gen. David Suissa, the former commander of the artillery corps, told Walla news last year that the artillery corps, which numerically is still dominated by the 40-year-old 155mm. M109 cannons but is increasingly moving in the direction of GPS-guided MLRS​ rocket systems and Tammuz missiles, has undergone “a revolution that will be brought to the fore in the next war.” (The Tammuz was used extensively in the Second Lebanon War but the heart of the IDF’s firepower was still the old 155 mm guns.)

The Tammuz, declassified in 2011, was first developed to fight against armored divisions. Colonel Benny “Benga” Beit-Or, an engineer who had served as the head of weapons development for IDF ground forces, conceived of the notion of a division of tank-hunting troops, equipped with long-range missiles able to hit a moving target. The idea was to counteract Syria’s quantitative superiority in armor. The IDF summoned Beit-Or into reserves and upgraded the project to an emergency level of urgency.

Beit-Or chose Rafael Advanced Defense System’s winning design and, in May 1986, named the new division charged with operating the weapon “David’s Slingshot” – a clear indication of how he saw the small, smart weapon and its efficacy against hulking armored opponents. The conscripted unit charged with operating the missiles would be called “Moran” and later “Meitar.”

For five years, the highly classified missiles, known as Spike in English, were not cleared for operational use. That changed in the spring of 1992 when Lt. Gen. Ehud Barak, then the chief of the General Staff, tasked his old friend and unit mate Brig. Gen. Amiram Levin with what IDF special-ops officers often call “a project.” In this case: the assassination of Saddam Hussein.

Levin, who later went on to head the Northern Command and served as deputy director of the Mossad, came up with the idea of using the Tammuz missile for the targeted killing. The plan, as laid out recently on the Uvda news program, was to either wait for, or induce, the death of Saddam Hussein’s beloved uncle, Talfah Hirallah, who was being treated in a hospital in Baghdad. Once he died or approached death, an elite team of commandos would enter Iraq, advance to the Hussein family’s hometown outside of Tikrit, position themselves on the outskirts of the​ local cemetery, and kill Saddam, with a guided Tammuz missile, as he stood motionless over his uncle’s grave.

‘In the General Staff they understood that they had a weapon that knows how to attack in a super accurate way, without causing unintended damage, especially as terror operates within a civilian environment’

The plan backfired on November 5, 1992 when, with a large part of the General Staff in attendance, the soldiers from the elite Sayeret Matkal unit fired a live missile during a dry run and killed five of their fellow commandos.

After that, the missile was shelved for 12 years. Only in 2004, with Gantz serving as the OC Northern Command and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon as the chief of the General Staff, was the missile taken out of war-time-only use and cleared for operational use once again. In November 2005, in response to a thwarted Hezbollah hostage-taking operation in the northern town of Rajar, the soldiers from Meitar fired the weapon for the first time, taking out two Hezbollah positions. “As far as we were concerned, the dam was broken open, and in the General Staff they understood that they had a weapon that knows how to attack in a super accurate way, without causing unintended damage, especially as terror operates within a civilian environment,” Lt. Col. A, the commander of Meitar, told Walla news.

During the Second Lebanon War (2006), Operation Cast Lead (2008-9), and Operation Pillar of Defense (2012), the Tammuz was fired often and with devastating effect. Corporal A, a soldier in the unit who recently finished his training and has begun operational duty, said in a phone interview that, “from 2006 to 2009, we eliminated the most terrorists of any unit in the IDF, proportionally speaking.”

Interviews with the soldier and a company commander in the unit shed light on the training and operational functionality of this offensive and defensive weapon, which the commander of the unit told Walla was like an attack helicopter “with the only difference being that they have to go up in the air and then push a button and we just have to push the button.”

Cap. A, a company commander in the Meitar unit, which is devoted solely to the Tammuz missile, said that when recruiting he looks for soldiers who are technologically savvy, capable of working well with others under duress, and able to navigate and spend long stretches in the field.

Based on their skills, the soldiers are split into two parallel teams. Cap. A called them a “look-out team” and “missilologists.”

Maj. Doron Campbell, the commander of Operation Bramble – the tongue-in-cheek name given to the aborted Saddam 1992 assassination mission — and, at the time, deputy commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, told Omri Osenheim of Uvda that his force was also split into two. The forward team, led by Campbell, was to position itself “100-200” yards from the cemetery. Heavily camouflaged, they would report back to the team in the rear, clueing them in to Saddam’s position and attire and any other information that could help the operators guide the missile to the target.

Today, according to military sources, the Golan Heights are to a large extent being guarded by Tammuz missile operators, allowing Israel to protect its border with Syria against a sudden tank charge without amassing armor

In the rear, some 12 kilometers from the cemetery, the Tammuz operators would be stationed. They were to carry 10 missiles, and they were to be equipped with screens that displayed camera footage from the tip of the missile. Campbell said that once the missile, which travels along a trapezoidal path, dropped its nose and bore down on the target, the operators, searching for a man-sized target rather than a tank, would have had two seconds to steer it to the desired location.

“Basically there are two parts to the unit,” explained Corporal A, a new immigrant and lone soldier from San Francisco. “The ones who stay clean and the ones who get dirty.”

He referred to the fact that the forward unit, known as the recon company, has to be able to travel long distances on foot, carrying significant amounts of weight, and to be able to remain in the field for as long as necessary. The missile operators need to be technologically savvy, poised under pressure and dexterous. The high cost of the missiles, up to 500,000 shekels each (some $135,000) for the most advanced of the lot, means that the soldiers mostly hone their skills on a simulator that tests them against an array of custom-designed backdrops and evolving scenarios. At times, the proper response, Captain A indicated, is to steer the missile off target and avoid the loss of innocent life.

Today, according to military sources, the Golan Heights are to a large extent being guarded by Tammuz missile operators, allowing Israel to protect its border with Syria against a sudden tank charge without amassing armor, and enabling decision-makers to return fire into Syria without mistakenly hitting the wrong target.

The most recent usage of the Tammuz missile was on Saturday night, August 17, eliminating a Syrian position near the town of Brieka, opposite the central Golan Heights, after several mortars were fired into Israeli territory. For the previous three months, ever since May 21, Israel’s side of the border had been relatively calm, haunted only by the sounds and sights of war. The commander of the unit, though, warned that the quiet could be shattered in seconds, forcing his soldiers to “act surgically against a mass of targets.” Wednesday’s alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces underlined the conflict’s ongoing potential to surprise and horrify afresh.

Corporal A was not concerned. He described immigrating to Israel and volunteering specifically for Meitar as a result of his admiration for his Israeli camp counselor who had served in the unit. He said that he wanted to do something he believed in rather than “spend a few years in college trying to figure out what to do.”

Rather than dropping a giant bomb on a civilian population, he said, the Tammuz missile allowed the army a precise alternative, which can be delivered to its target through a dense civilian population. “Basically,” he said, “we can do a lot with very little.”

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