Artillery: Overtaken By Success


March 21, 2017: Israel is disbanding Meitar, one of its oldest (since 1986), most effective and secretive artillery units that used a unique, very effective and quite secret weapon. Disbanding Meitar was not unexpected because in late 2016 Israel admitted the existence of a “secret weapon” that had been largely kept out of news since it first entered service in 1980s. The weapon has been known since 2009 (when it was offered for export) as the Spike NLOS (Non Line-Of-Sight) missile.

Israel had, as far back as the late 1970s been secretly developing this weapon as the “Tamuz” and in the 1980s formed Meitar, a special artillery unit, to operate these extremely accurate battlefield missiles. Tamuz was a missile that used a video camera and radio link to enable the operator to hit small targets at long ranges (first ten, then 20 and now 25 kilometers) and have the option to abort at the last minute. Disbanding Meitar made sense because the basic technology behind these missiles had become cheaper, easier to use and more widely known and used. In short, the “Meitar Magic” had evolved and now appeared in many more weapons.

Over its 30 year history Meitar was used over a thousand times and many enemies it had been used against had come to understand that this was not more Israeli “magic” but just a technological edge the Israelis developed first and found to be more effective if the details were kept secret. But some Israeli allies found out about it.

From the beginning what made Tamuz so effective was the use of trained operators to “drive” the missile to a very specific target (like a moving vehicle or a window into a room). Until the Spike NLOS version was revealed in 2009, units equipped with Tamuz missiles were considered elite because skilled and well trained operators were needed to make sure the final moments of flight took the missile to the target. Aside from the time (months) and efforts to recruit and train the operators, Tamuz was also expensive (several times what a less accurate guided missile cost). After 2000 advances in electronics, software and design made it possible to add “fire and forget” and other operator friendly features. But before that Tamuz was considered a very specialized weapon whose existence was generally kept secret. For one thing if potential enemies knew details of how Tamuz worked they could develop tactics and methods that would make Tamuz less effective. Moreover the secrecy reinforced the attitude among Islamic terrorists that the Western and Israeli infidels (non-Moslems) must be using some sort of sorcery (forbidden to devout Moslems) to make it work. It wasn’t sorcery it was just carefully developed and properly used tech.

Before offering the latest version, Spike NLOS, for export in 2009 Israel secretly sold it to Britain in 2007 for use in Afghanistan. This was part of a deal that involved Britain buying UAV technology from Israel for their Watchkeeper UAV. Britain bought over 600 Spike NLOS missiles and used them very effectively in Afghanistan to quickly destroy Taliban efforts to fire rockets and mortar shells at British bases. The British called the Spike NLOS missile systems Exactor and cautioned the troops to keep quiet about the details. The secrecy generally held although there were occasional mentions of Exactor in British military publication ever since.

Spike NLOS weighs 70kg (155 pounds), about 50 percent more than more popular and less precise Hellfire missile. Spike NLOS can be fired at a target the operator cannot see (but someone else, with a laser designator, can see). Spike NLOS is usually fired from helicopters, which also provides the laser designator. There is also a ground version, which was what the British used in Afghanistan, with missile launchers mounted on M113 armored vehicles. Spike NLOS has multiple guidance systems, mainly laser and the live video feed can be used for the operator to fly the missile into to the target or simply capture an of the selected target so the missile can home in by itself (“fire and forget”). The operator can still have Spike NLOS self-destruct or shift to another target.

Israel successfully used Spike NLOS during the 2006 war with Hezbollah in south Lebanon and the 2014 war with Hamas in Gaza. Now that most of the details of what Spike NLOS is and where it came from (and what it has been through) it is an increasingly popular export item. But that is mainly because various versions of the missile (first as then as Spike NLOS) had been in service since the 1980s, were battle tested and known to be very dependable and effective no matter what tech they used.