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Israel’s artillery corps torn between precision and power

Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, fought amid a civilian population, proved the need for guided munitions and curved trajectory shells — and the shortcomings of both

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

An IDF artillery piece firing toward Gaza during Operation Protective Edge (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
An IDF artillery piece firing toward Gaza during Operation Protective Edge (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

There are two elements to military success: fire power and ground maneuver. Israel’s defense — its ability to prevail in the age of asymmetric warfare — is seen as increasingly reliant on  the former, so long as the munitions are precise and the intelligence is accurate and swiftly delivered. But this notion was bruised by the reality of the fighting on the ground in Gaza this summer, where tanks, infantry, and artillery, the cumbersome tools of the ground maneuver, proved to be pivotal in forcing Hamas toward a ceasefire agreement.

A close look at the IDF Artillery Corps – a branch of the ground forces that is very much in flux, torn between the ethical need to try and avoid inflicting civilian casualties, even when fighting an enemy that purposely hides among the innocent, and the need to protect its own soldiers, who have always relied on artillery when maneuvering on the ground – illustrates some of the tension that has gripped the army recently, during budgetary debates, and during the 50-day conflict in Gaza, where the notion of proportionality continually strained the country’s decision makers.

The corps operates hand-launched drones, which logged three times as many flight hours during the operation as during the entire previous year, and long distance drones, which also provided intelligence from the front and, in tandem with the air force, amassed more flight hours in Gaza than manned aircraft; it also operates radars that trigger an alarm when rockets are fired toward Israel and a rocket system known as MLRS, which saturates a large swath of territory with fire but was not employed in Gaza on account of its inherent incompatibility with the urban setting.

The two poles of the corps, though, are marked by the Meitar unit, which operates the guided Spike or Tammuz missile, and the old-fashioned, but perhaps indispensable, 155mm. cannons, which still represent the vast majority of the corps’ firepower.

The former has come in for criticism for its price tag and its lack of decisive firepower during a battle, and the latter, while praised domestically by army officers and others, has been pilloried internationally for its inexact nature and deadly payload.

A close-up shot of the Tammuz missiles mounted on an armed personnel carrier (Photo credit: Courtesy: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
A close-up shot of the Tammuz missiles mounted on an armored personnel carrier (Photo credit: Courtesy: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The numbers tell part of the story. The guided Tammuz missile, which can be steered through a window in the middle of an urban environment from a distance of up to 25 kilometers [16 miles], costs between 500,000 and 800,000 shekels apiece. The IDF fired over 250 such missiles in Gaza this summer. (In contrast, in 2008-9, during Operation Cast Lead, the army fired 26 of those missiles.) The cost, then, of using the Tammuz, which has a camera on the nose so that it can be steered directly to the target – or away from it if civilians appear on the screen in midflight – was at least 125 million shekels.

“Some would say we should have fired less precise munitions,” said Lt. Col. Tal Algazi, the head of the IDF’s Precise Munition School within the Artillery Corps. “But what we did is employ fire in direct correlation with the operational need at the time.”

In other words, he said, whenever a Tammuz squad in the field, or a different means of surveillance, identified a distinct enemy target, the army fired a precise munition.

But the IDF, in what will surely be a significant part of both the internal and external probes of the army’s conduct during the war, also fired far more of the un-guided curved trajectory shells than in previous campaigns, at the relatively insignificant cost of 4,000-5,000 shekels per shell.

During the 50-days of combat, in which over 2,100 Palestinians were killed – roughly one-half of whom appear to have been civilians – the army fired 34,000 artillery rounds; 12,000 were smoke, 3,000 were illumination, and 19,000 were explosive.

This, according to army figures, is nearly five-fold the number of shells fired during the army’s last ground and air operation in Gaza, in 2008-9, in which roughly 7,000 artillery shells were fired. The necessity and legality of the increase of fire, at an enemy that shelters itself within civilian populations, are questions that linger in the wake of Operation Protective Edge.

The IDF fired roughly 34,000 artillery shells into Gaza during the 50-day operation (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
The IDF fired roughly 34,000 artillery shells into Gaza during the 50-day operation (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The IDF MAG Corps, under the command of Maj. Gen. Dan Efroni – the only army officer independent of the hierarchal chain of command – is investigating the use of artillery during the fighting. His legal teams will look at the way artillery was used on August 1, after Lt. Hadar Goldin was killed and taken captive outside Rafah, and during the week of July 20, during the battle for Shejaiya – two instances in which urban environments were pummeled with artillery.

It remains to be seen whether Efroni will limit the IDF’s leeway in authorizing artillery strikes and, if so, to what extent.

In the past, senior army officers have indicated that the curved trajectory artillery shell – a statistical weapon, one that has an inherent margin of error of roughly two hundred yards – is irrelevant to the warfare in Gaza. One such officer, offering The Times of Israel a tour of the Gaza border region last year, stopped at a lookout over Beit Lahiya, peered into the dense urban environment, and said, “If I don’t have precision artillery, I don’t shoot.”

For many senior IDF officers, the incompatibility, in Gaza, of the weapon that proved so lethally effective on the frozen fields of World War I, was hammered home by the events of November 8, 2006 – when the army, in response to a Kassam rocket that was fired at Ashkelon, responded with 12 artillery rounds; 10 hit the target, Haaretz reported at the time, and two apparently slammed into a civilian neighborhood in Beit Hanoun, killing 19 people, including many women and children, most from the Atamneh family.

In December 2008, three weeks before the start of Operation Cast Lead, Achaz Ben-Ari, legal counsel to the Defense Ministry, wrote to defense minister Ehud Barak that artillery fire was best avoided if the target is positioned within populated urban areas. “Artillery fire can only be directed to relatively open areas…” he wrote, according to a 2008 account published by Amos Harel of Haaretz. “Artillery fire toward urban spaces is problematic if the estimation is that the chances of a shell hitting a [rocket] launcher is relatively small while the danger of many civilians being hurt is real.”

In 2009, the commander of the Gaza Division, Brig. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, was found, in authorizing artillery fire that led to a fire in an UNRWA facility in Gaza, to have violated standing orders. Eisenberg, today a major general and the head of the Home Front Command, and the commander of the Givati Brigade, were tried and reprimanded.

An Israeli soldier sleeps on an ammunition box near an 155mm artillery cannon stationed along the southern Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, Friday, July 11, 2014. (photo credit: Jack Guez/AFP)
An Israeli soldier sleeps on an ammunition box near an 155mm artillery cannon stationed along the southern Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, Friday, July 11, 2014. (photo credit: Jack Guez/AFP)

Then came Operation Protective Edge, where the army, from its perspective, re-discovered the necessity of the curved trajectory shell. “Despite the criticism leveled at this sort of fire, one must understand that there is no alternative to it and its necessity was proven beyond all doubt,” Col. Yaron Lavie, the head of doctrine in the artillery corps, told the army’s weekly magazine Bamachaneh.

A senior officer in the artillery corps, not cleared to speak for attribution, explained. Take Shejaiya, he said. There the IDF sent the Golani Brigade into the city in northern Gaza without “softening it up” in advance because, so long as its soldiers were not under direct fire from there, it did not want to endanger civilians, who had been warned to leave the city.

Several hours later, the army had lost 13 soldiers. Dozens more were wounded, including the brigade commander and several battalion commanders. The enemy, numbering around 900 militants, was embedded in civilian structures and pouring down fire on the troops. The army brass, for the first time since the 1982 Lebanon War, ordered the soldiers into armored personnel carriers and, despite the lack of a sufficient safety range, fired 600 artillery rounds within half an hour.

Palestinian gunmen from the military wing of Hamas during what they termed a 'victory rally' amid the debris of destroyed houses in Shejaiya, a Hamas stronghold of Gaza City, Wednesday, August 27, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Adel Hana)
Palestinian gunmen from the military wing of Hamas during what they termed a ‘victory rally’ amid the debris of destroyed houses in Shejaiya, a Hamas stronghold of Gaza City, Wednesday, August 27, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Adel Hana)

A senior US officer told Al Jazeera America, an affiliate of the pro-Hamas Qatari TV station, that the IDF pumped 4,800 shells into the neighborhood during one intense seven-hour period, between July 20-21, and 7,000 all told over the course of 24 hours.

“There was a concentrated amount of fire during the course of a complex battle,” the Israeli officer said, without confirming the aforementioned numbers. “We responded with massive fire in order to paralyze the sources of fire firing on us.”

He said that precise munitions, while ideal in the urban environment, simply do not provide the “mass of fire that at times is necessary” – particularly when troops are trapped under fire and soldiers are in need of immediate evacuation or a sudden shift in the momentum of a battle.

The chief author of the IDF code of ethics agreed. Professor Asa Kasher wrote in the most recent edition of the Jewish Review of Books that, while the IDF must and does observe two international principles — of distinction [between combatant and civilian] and proportionality [between the possible military gains of an operation and the expected price to be paid by civilians] – the soldiers are “entitled to ask the state, as well as the IDF and its commanders, whether they are being placed in greater jeopardy to save the lives of enemy noncombatants who have been repeatedly warned to leave the scene of battle.”

“An affirmative answer to this question,” he wrote, “would be morally unacceptable.”

The commander of a mission is best positioned to evaluate the military advantages of accomplishing it, Kasher wrote, noting that, “The norms of proportionality make it incumbent upon a military commander to minimize collateral damage, but they do not prohibit all collateral damage. No war has ever been fought without collateral damage.”

Kasher, quoting from the 1868 St. Petersburg Declaration Renouncing the Use, in Times of War, of Certain Explosive Projectiles, wrote that armies are required to ceaselessly try to “alleviate the calamities of war.”

For Lt. Col. Algazi and the rest of the artillery corps, that is what stands behind the extensive use of the Tammuz missile and the decision to acquire and deploy, later this year, an initial batch of Israeli-made rockets, known as the Romach, which, guided by GPS, can hit targets 35 kilometers away, with an alleged five-meter deviation.

The commander of the corps, Brig. Gen. Roy Riftin, told Defense News in March that it’s an “ideal ‘good enough’ option that allows us to straddle both worlds at a reasonable price.”

Algazi, speaking of the modern battlefield, said that “the relevance of precise and guided munitions is only going to increase” and that the army, as a whole, “is headed in that direction.”

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