Israel's Iron Dome, Tank Edition: The "Trophy" System

A game changer for Israeli armor at a critical moment?

In typical war reporting, casualty figures are cited and recited, accompanied by political arguments and counterarguments, while information on military events remains confined to the question of "who's winning". Israel's various operations in Gaza over the past decade have been no exception. Only once their effectiveness was obvious, did Israel's Iron Dome antimissile system gain broad media attention. Today it is arguably the single most important factor shaping the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

But while Iron Dome has become a household name, recent fighting has evinced the importance of a second, still newer Israeli missile-defense system: the armor-mounted "Trophy" (or "Windbreaker") anti-guided missile (ATGM) protection system.

At this point, it is clear that Israel's current Gaza operation "Protective Edge" is running a course significantly different from its two recent predecessors, "Pillar of Defense" (2012) and "Cast Lead" (2009). In contrast with those previous engagements, Israel’s current operation has run into an effective defensive strategy that Hamas has spent years preparing, centering on a system of both offensive and defensive tunnels, some running deep into Israeli territory (over forty of such tunnels have been discovered thus far). As part of its tunnel strategy, Hamas also spent significant efforts training commando teams for a form of highly mobile guerrilla warfare in and around the tunnels. Such teams, typically ten to fifteen members strong, have extremely short life expectancies, typically being wholly destroyed in an engagement. Nevertheless, they have resulted in significant casualties on the Israeli side. At the time of this writing, the tally stood at forty-eight IDF troops killed. In this way, Israel's operation "Protective Edge" seems more akin to Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah than to the previous conflicts with Hamas. Hezbollah, too, managed in large part to hold its own against the IDF, sufficiently so as to cause significant soul searching among Israel's military and political establishments.

But there is a striking and telling difference between the IDF casualty figures that came out of Lebanon in 2006 and those coming out of Gaza today. In fact, this difference may prove critical to the outcome of "Protective Edge", as well as, possibly, to the nature of Israel's battle tactics for some time to come.

In 2006, Hezbollah's tactics relied heavily on the use of Russian "Kornet" antitank guided missiles (ATGM) to inflict significant damage on Israel's vaunted "Merkava" (Chariot) tanks. Television footage from the conflict shows long columns of IDF armor jammed in the narrow wadis of Lebanon's mountainous terrain, providing easy targets for Hezbollah's missiles. Indeed, to some commentators, Hezbollah's 2006 missile threat to Israeli tanks seemed so severe as to render questionable the very future of Israeli armor in the fight against guerrilla organizations, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. A recent Ynet article cited IDF Chief Armor Officer Brig. Gen. Shmuel Olansky saying: "There were people who said before the operation: Shut down the tanks, put them on display in museum". Antiguerrilla operations, it seemed, were destined to become a largely infantry-centered affair.

However, today's Gaza operation makes matters seem rather different. While a significant portion of Israel's forty-eight killed troops during “Protective Edge” were victims of missile strikes, largely absent from the casualty lists are crews of Israel's Merkava tanks. Instead, Hamas has been most successful targeting Israeli armored personnel carriers. In particular, the gravest such incident saw seven Israeli soldiers killed when traveling in an outdated M113 armored personnel carrier. (The use of the outdated M113 has caused significant anger among the Israeli public. The U.S. army introduced the M113 as early as the 1960s, but Israel possesses much more advanced "Achzarit" and "Namer" personnel carriers. After the deadly incident, a convoy of these newer vehicles was promptly ordered to travel south from Israel’s northern border.)