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Are we facing another World War I? Anti-tank guided missiles

Antitantk guided missiles

Some of the first things that we think of if reminiscing the World War I are incessant trench warfare systems, positional systems, the battle fronts mainly static, and if they do progress, it is done with tremendous losses but small portions of territory gained. The fear of positional war systems and the horrors of the WWI, have made military thinkers and scientists to come up with the solution that will resolve such situations should they occur in the future. During WWI, the first drafts of such technique patterns occurred in the form of making tanks. Even though the first tanks were slow and clumsy, they were successful in the battlefield. Well-known British military analyst, J.C.F. Fuller once said “the tank has become the saver of human blood”. The changing positions of the battlefields, if the tanks were included into the attack strategy, were indeed saving human lives.

During World War II and even before it, armoured mechanical units have come to their active development. They were capable of breaching enormous battlefronts with significant decrease in loss of mankind, and that was used by the Germans during their European conquest, and the Soviets when fighting the Japanese in 1939.The tank was one of the basic means for breaching the battlefronts as well as the destruction of the entire armies during the World War II. People were seeking unconventional practical solutions outside the pre-existing way of thinking. Germans developed non guided antitank missiles of mobile type, such as “panzerfaust” and “panzerschresk”. These missiles gave the upper hand to the infantry forces battling the tanks at restricted distance. The less known fact is that during the battles, the Germans used to test the guided antitank missiles in the time of final stages of the war, thus becoming the pioneers in building them. The tank has gained a worthy opponent- the infantry.
After the end of the WWII, the things were developing in a predictable manner. Antitank systems were getting stronger, the tank has become more susceptible to destruction. Still, it remained the basic means for joint coordination.

“The Judgement Day” war in 1973 was the war that marked antitank missiles as a great success. The Soviet missiles AT-3 Sagger inflicted heavy losses to the Israel army. The infantry showed that it obtained the weapon which enables it to fight the tank attacks on its own, without coordination with the other arms of service. Still, the tank continued to be the essential means for the attack, so it retained its name of “human blood saver”. The one thing was becoming more obvious-the losses of the tanks were increasing from one battle to another, being confronted with the guided antitank missiles.

There are numerous examples of usage of the new missiles on various battlefields, yet none of them could be compared to Syrian or Yemen battlefields when it comes to missile usage. Antitank missiles in these battles were used largely, in such manner that cast a shadow upon every previous battlefield experience after 1945.These two conflicts used every system, beginning with the old Soviet Saggar systems, Fagot, including French MILLAN, American TOW, extending to the new Russian systems Metis, Kornet, etc.

The usage of the missiles during the Syrian war affected literally all types of military goals, starting with tanks, armoured vehicles, transport lorries, ending with the regular infantry which is a nonprofit goal. Such usage of the ATGM has never before seen elsewhere.

Regardless of the usage of similar types of missiles within the first two years, the public started to pay more attention to them when a large shipment of the American TOW-2 missiles to the Syrian rebels and the foreign fighters that stood by their side, became uncovered. The amount of missiles fired caught all the war observers by surprise. The system delivery resulted in making the Syrian army actions harder. The antiarmour effects from the 3 km distance made the Syrian army to reconsider its current view of the usage of armoured war units. Several hundreds of Syrian armoured vehicles and tanks were hit. That lowered the significant advantage that the Syrian army has enjoyed so far. The war has shown that, even the army enjoys the air supremacy, it has issues with taking over the areas if such area is being saturated with antiarmours effective from 3 km range.

However, the usage of the TOW system is just a single part of the story of ATGM in Syrian war. The counter measures were found for TOW missiles, and those were Syrian systems for electronic warfare Sarab-1, Sarab-2. The Iranian allies used the clone of the above mentioned American system, the “Tophan” system. It was used by the Iranian campaign forces in Syria as well as the Syrian army. And it proved to be highly effective.

The Russian system “Kornet” became very popular in the war. No counter measure was found for this antiarmour system. One could only rely on being cautious and lucky. All parties at war used , and still do, use this system. Besides from being significantly cheaper than the American system of the same type, Kornet has proved to be highly resilient when it comes to disruption and the breach scope. The most significant user of this system is by far the Syrian army. People handling this system could feel safe by targeting the goals from over 4 km distance. It is very challenging to fight such an enemy, even if one possesses the air supremacy; such notion proved by the Syrian war and also the war in Yemen. The greatest surprise in the Syrian war was the most upgraded version of the system, named Kornet-D. It was used in the north of Latakia to hit over ten technical rebel units in a distance of over 8 km. Many military analysts were in shock due to this discovery, that a single operator could aim spotty targets, and feel absolutely safe from the enemy’s counterattack. This raises the main question-how to breach the battlefield that is in enemy’s hands if it is being saturated with these weapons. During the conflicts in Syria, where these positions were surpassed by the advantage of the attackers (Syrian army), its air forces, gun power as well as Russian air strikes.A journalist working for ANNA news, while observing the battle in the Palestinian camp Yarmuk and analyzing the fierce battle against the Islam state, made this remark quite accurately. He said that the Syrian army had won because it had supremacy in weaponry, whereas the Islam state used advance when it came to war in urban areas. Yet, he posted a logical question: what would happen if there was an enemy holding the other means of retaliation? The answer would be “stalemate”.

When talking about stalemate, we do not refer to the stalemate form of the WWI with its trench warfare systems and the distances between enemies of few hundred or less than a hundred metres. We are referring to the battlefield control with guided antiarmour system in the depth of more than 8 km. The price the attacker would pay is beyond imaginable if striking the battle lines secured by such systems.

The war has shown that the classic armoured units had to be transformed from pure armoured to mixed type units, in order to cope with the new way of war, the one in which the tank itself is not capable to respond to its old mission. Here we come to the question whether in the future the units will shift themselves to the light, dispensable ones, yet armed by devices of the precise long distant effects. The countries that own mass armies may sustain their supremacy in number, for executing such missions. However, the mass armies are the privilege of a few.

The war in Yemen was another war where guided antiarmour systems had devastating effects, and they were used by both sides. Considering that Northern Yemen is at its retreating position, the effects of these systems are clearly visible there. Hundreds of armoured Oshkosh vehicles and other devices were destroyed in ambushes, with the usage of outdated systems like Fagot but also new Kornet. Regardless of the enormous advantage that the coalition held in terms of technique and air supremacy, the front shifting is always slow and accompanied by heavy losses. These wars have shown that the most effective weapon that can face any challenge, has not been found yet. Electronic war systems that can be adjoined to tanks have shown a certain level of protection, regarding solely to particular systems, and therefore could not be deemed as an absolute solution.

Maybe the answer to this inquiry could be found if one considers the manner of developing the arming systems in the potential areas of the Middle East. The confronting forces are very competitive when it comes to developing the missile weaponry as the main agents of both attack and defence. Have the long-term planners, due to existing circumstances, given up of standard battlefield breach when the two conventional armies are at conflict? That remains to be witnessed. For now, the ATGM are progressing in their development, unlike their potential targets.

Vladimir Gujanicic

"Vladimir Gujanicic served in the special forces of Serbia and finished his studies in history at the University of Belgrade. He is a trusted contact of the Syrian embassy, and regularly consults Fort Russ’ parent organization, the Belgrade based think tank, Center for Syncretic Studies on related matters. His specialty is modern history and the history of the Soviet Union."