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Israel arms tanks with new defense system

  |   March 21, 2011 at 1:03 PM
TEL AVIV, Israel, March 21 (UPI) -- Amid the political turbulence in the Arab world, which always makes Israel twitchy, its military is equipping its Merkava tanks with a new miniature defense system to protect them against Russian missiles Hezbollah used to great effect in the 2006 war.

The Active Protection System, also known as Windbreaker, was developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems with Israel Aerospace Industries, after Hezbollah knocked out half a dozen Merkavas, among the most heavily armored tanks in the world, and disabled more than 30 during the 34-day conflict in southern Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold.

Hezbollah's secret weapon in that summer war of 2006 was the Kornet-E 9M133, a third-generation anti-tank missile produced by the KBP Instrument Design Bureau in Tula, Russia.

The Shiite fighters, armed by Iran and Syria, used the armor-piercing Kornet, along with the Russian AT-4 Spigot and AT-5 Spandrel, to counter Israel's overwhelming armored superiority, namely the Merkava IV tank which up to then was considered virtually invincible.

But highly mobile Hezbollah anti-tank teams hit them hard. That conflict between Israel's armed forces and Hezbollah "constituted a major change in the delicate balance between our offensive superiority on the battlefield in terms of tanks and Hezbollah's ability to counter that advantage with missiles," said Israeli military analyst Raanan Gissin.

These days, the Israelis say, the Palestinian militants of the Hamas movement, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since June 2007, have also been armed with Kornets by Syria and Iran.

Indeed, the Windbreaker system got its baptism of Kornet fire on Israel's southern front March 1 with the 9th Battalion of the 401st Armored Brigade and destroyed a laser-guided Hamas anti-tank missile fired at one of its Merkavas.

Windbreaker -- the export version is known as Trophy -- has a radar system that can detect an incoming missile. A small interceptor missile is fired to destroy it and the system automatically reloads.

"It's like someone pointing a gun at you and firing a bullet," Gissin explained. "You pull your gun and you fire a bullet to hit his bullet."

The APS can even detect whether an incoming missile will miss the tank and ignore it as a target. That capability is also employed in the Iron Dome anti-missile system which is designed to shoot down short-range missiles and rockets like the Soviet-designed Grads and other weapons known by the generic term Katyushas used by Hezbollah and Hamas.

According to the Israeli media, the APS costs around $1 million a piece. But Rafael hopes that the cost for Israel's armored forces can be reduced significantly through export sales.

Windbreaker is believed to be the first of its kind. Up to now, tanks have relied on ever thicker armor plating or reactive armor to protect them against increasingly powerful anti-tank weapons.

The new system hasn't been tested in large-scale combat, where large numbers of anti-tank missiles could be in the air at once.

The Kornet, which has wide foreign sales, is believed to be the most advanced anti-tank weapon Hamas possesses. The missile, with a warhead containing 22 pounds of high explosive, has been in service with Russian forces since 1994.

It's capable of penetrating armor 4 feet thick and has a range of 4 miles. Its laser guidance system makes it extremely hard to detect.

With the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Feb. 11 after 18 days of increasingly violent clashes on the streets of Cairo and other cities, the Israelis are concerned that their 1979 peace treaty with Egypt may start to unravel.

The Israeli military command has started to deploy forces on the border with Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula for the first time since 1985, as well as brace for trouble on the frontier with Gaza.

The northern border with Lebanon has been relatively quiet since 2006 but the emergence of a Hezbollah-led government in Beirut in January has caused some consternation in Israel.

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