So far in this series, we’ve looked at the development of US and Western European anti-tank guided missiles, from their origins in a German WWII design program to their introduction to combat — just in time to encounter Russian missiles designed along similar lines — in the Vietnam War. (The Russian missiles got the first kill, by a couple of weeks). Today we’ll extend the story of early ATGMs by discussing how the Russians developed their missiles, and how Russian missiles figured in Arab planning for in the Yom Kippur War (the Ramadan War, to the Arabs, and the October War to the strictly neutral) of 1973. Unlike the Vietnam offensive of 1972, where they were only locally decisive, the robotic tank-killers decided battles and nearly won the war. We’ll have more about the war in a future installment (this one is already over 2500 words — oversized for a web post).
Russian Missile Development
Compared to Germany, which was working on them in 1945, and France and the USA, which were in development from the earliest 1950s, the Soviets were a little late to wire-guided ATGM development, beginning only in the late 1950s. It’s unknown whether they had as a basis any foreign technology. Certainly they could have used captured German technology, French or American technology acquired by espionage, or they simply could have applied robust Russian engineering to problem solutions that they knew their Western rivals had already accomplished. It’s probable that all three were part of missile R&D, with the heavy lifting being done by Russian engineers. The Russian product, by 1973, was a missile that was combat-ready and had several advantages over its Western counterparts.
As with SAMs, Russian engineers passed through numerous experimental iterations of ATGMs (Anti Tank Guided Missiles), and they delivered to their Arab friends the first and third version that they operationalized. The first missile was a bit of a turkey; fired from a converted GAZ-69 jeep, the 3M6 Shmel (NATO coded, AT-1 Snapper) flew fairly slowly, had an enormous launch signature, and was vulnerable to the obvious countermeasure of blowing away the jeep and its crew, including the missile aimer who could not fire from a remote or dismounted position, but sat in a seat facing backwards looking at the target through a periscopic sight. The gunner had to continue to aim at the tank and steer the missile throughout its flight, which could be 15-20 seconds — a lifetime, literally, in armored combat.
It is very hazardous being on a tank battlefield wearing less than a tank. A cotton Army shirt, or a sheet-metal jeep, provide no protection and if that’s what you have, cover and concealment are vital. The Snapper couldn’t be fired from cover (except in its BRDM version, which put a bare 15mm of armor between the operators and the great outdoors), and it negated its own concealment by launching from the control station.
The third missile, though, the 9M14 Malyutka, better known by its NATO reporting code AT-3 Sagger, was a hit, no pun intended. The Sagger, while having a great resemblance to the French missiles the Israelis had played with and a family resemblance to the Snapper, was small. It came packed in a plastic “suitcase” half of which served as the base for its simple rail launcher, and the other half as a base for its reusable sight. One man could carry one all day on his back, and two, suitcase-style, in his hands for short spurts. In true Russian tradition, the missile was sturdy and reliable, and made no superhuman demands on its operator. True, it was a MCLOS (Manual Command to Line of Sight) missile, at least in these early versions, and operator training was vital, but along with the missiles, the Soviets had developed operator and maintenance training, including mobile missile simulators that could travel with divisional logistics elements and keep operators sharp. These they furnished freely to the Egyptian and Syrian armed forces (among others). It was the Egyptians who would make the best use of these missiles.
The Sagger and the Tank Sack
Soviet doctrine had long taught the anti-tank ambush under various terms (the image-rich “tank sack” is one that springs to mind), and they’d used it deftly against the Germans, whose armored warfare worked splendidly against Russian tanks, and not so well against concealed AT guns attacking the Panzers’ vulnerable flanks.
The modern variation of the use of AT guns was to follow leading tanks closely with infantry antitank teams. Soviet tanks would have their flanks guarded by infantry, something comforting for any tanker, but these infantry would be well-equipped with AT weapons, principally long-range Saggers and short-range RPGs. A Sagger crewman needed intensive initial and recurrent training, and the Russians developed an innovative series of portable simulators to keep their missileers sharp without expending vast quantities of costly missiles. The well-trained Sagger crews dug in and/or located on reverse slopes, with their missiles displaced to the limit of their cords (about 15m) and only their periscopes showing. This protected them better than their unlucky mates in the Snapper jeeps.
The Soviet-designed weapons had a minimum effective range, but more to the point their maximum effective range was 3,000 meters, on the ragged edge of the effective range of the West’s 105mm tank gun. Moreover, a tank gun’s accuracy against a moving target depends on accurately ranging and leading the target, and so, a tank gun’s accuracy declines with range, and declines precipitously with range on fast-moving targets. This period US chart NOTE 2 brags up the improvement in a pH from Sherman to Pershing to M60A1 days:
But a missile under human guidance, like the Sagger, can track a moving target even if the target changes direction or speed. The general rule of thumb is that the first hit decides a tank fight; Sagger had a near 90% probability of hit at all ranges from 1,000 to 3,000 meters.
A hit gave the Sagger a very high pK as well: the warhead was among the most effective in the world at the time, penetrating the equivalent of 17″ of rolled homogeneous armor at 0º obliquity (engineering speak for “square on”). US testing of captured Saggers and computer probability analyses assigned the Sagger a .67 pK at a mean engagement range of 2,500 meters.
Combined with the T-62’s 5000+ fps tank guns for the midrange and RPGs for the knife fight, the Sagger meant a Soviet-style (including Egyptian or Syrian) antitank ambush was potentially lethal from 3,000 meters to zero.
American soldiers and engineers were very impressed with that graph.
Soviet technology made the combined arms army of 1970 very different from the victorious horde of 1945, Unlike the Western Allies, who had advanced under an umbrella of air power, the Soviets chose not to depend on their powerful Air Forces and Frontal Aviation, but to give their tank and motorized rifle units an umbrella of surface-to-air missiles overhead and a screen of anti-tank missiles to the front. They equipped every tank with night vision, choosing to spend now on active infrared rather than wait for the costs of image intensification to come down (the West, mostly, made the other choice, to delay purchases now and skip a generation of night equipment). This would also shock Israel, when her enemies (especially the Syrians, who had trained with the night sights and lights very extensively) could see at night, and their army could not. The IDF was heir to a tradition of night-fighting from 1948, and its leaders firmly believed that Arabs were too frightened and superstitious to fight at night, just as they believed that Arabs couldn’t operate and maintain sophisticated missiles.
The Sagger Countermeasures of 1973
Before the war, the Israelis didn’t take the Sagger seriously. They knew about it from desultory US reports and from occasional firings during Suez skirmishes — inconsequential firings that encouraged them to disrespect the missile. It was just one more anti-tank weapon, and when their own forces wanted anti-tank weapons, the Deputy Chief of Staff told them, “You already have the best one: a tank!” The qualitative change in the battlefield produced by a long-range, accurate, tank-killing weapon was completely unexpected.
[Military Intelligence] printed booklets about the Sagger’s characteristics based on information received from the United States, which had encountered the missile in Vietnam in 1971. The armored corps command had even developed tactics for dealing with the missile. But neither the booklets nor the suggested tactics had yet filtered down and few tank men were even aware of the Sagger’s existence.NOTE 3
How to answer the Sagger attack would become a major question for the Israelis (and by extension, for anyone who might have to fight Soviet-style forces). The US also studied this, before and after the war. While defenders worked out some countermeasures, they were imperfect; but a decade later, American tankers were still using “Sagger drills” developed by surviving Israeli tankers after their counterattack of 7 October 73 was savaged by infantry anti-tank teams using Saggers and RPGs.
Reshef’s operations officer, Lt. Pinhas Bar, who had accompanied Bardash’s force, assembled the tank commanders and explained the techniques developed in the past few hours for coping with the Sagger. Such impromptu lessons would be going on all along the front as new units took the field alongside tankers who had survived the day.
The Saggers, the “veterans” explained, were a formidable danger but not an ultimate weapon. They could be seen in flight and were slow enough to dodge. It took at least ten seconds for a missile to complete its flight—at extreme range it could be twice that—during which time the Sagger operator had to keep the target in his sights as he guided the missile by the bright red light on its tail. From the side it was easy for the tankers to see the light. As soon as anyone shouted “Missile,” the tanks were to begin moving back and forth in order not to present a stationary target. Movement would also throw up dust that would cloud the Sagger operator’s view. Simultaneously, the tank should fire in his presumed direction, which itself could be sufficient to throw him off his aim.
It was clear to the tank crews that something revolutionary was happening—as revolutionary, it seemed, as the introduction of the machine gun or the demise of the horse cavalry. Tanks, which had stalked the world’s battlefields for half a century like antedeluvian beasts, were now being felled with ease by ordinary foot soldiers. It would take time, in some cases days, before the implications of this extraordinary development would be grasped by higher command. Meanwhile, the tankers would have to figure out for themselves how to survive. NOTE 4
Most of the countermeasures relied on spotting the backblast of the launch and directing fire in that area. The US noted with alarm that the M60A1 tank needed to close to 1000-1500 meters to get its pH up to 50%, and by that point it was well within the range fan of the Sagger.
Other Sagger countermeasures included laying suppressive fire on likely lurking spots, something the US Army had forgotten since World War II and Korea; exploiting terrain, or as the Army put it, “every fold of ground”; keeping formations loose and non-geometric in order to complicate a Sagger gunner’s second-choice if he lost his first target; keeping moving, or firing from hull defilade; and using infantry for close-in protection of tanks. The US had a few advantages, too: its similar suite of missiles, guns and unguided rocket AT weapons had fewer minimum-range problems and generally superior accuracy and reduced training demands.
Even after the war, the Israelis struggled to find countermeasures. Uzi Eliam remembers:
Egyptian infantry infantry forces with Saturn missiles constituted a serious threat to our tanks. Maj. Gen. Albert Mendler, commander of the Southern division (the 252nd) in the Sinai Peninsula, was hit by a Egyptian antitank missile and died of his injuries…. NOTE 5
[Deputy CGS Israel] Tal was extremely concerned about the threat of the Sagger missiles which he himself had not completely understood before the war. During the years of the War of Attrition along the Canal, our observation posts had observed closed train cars arriving at the front lines. Each time such a train car reached the position of an Egyptian military unit, a long line of soldiers would form near the door, and the soldiers would enter the car one at a time. At first, we made jokes about the train cars, referring to them as mobile sexual service units similar to the kind operated by the Syrian army before the Six-Day War. However, we quickly realized that the train cars contained training simulators for Sagger missile operators.
At R&D, we thought about different ways of addressing the threat with the American developed Mk19 40 mm grenade machine gun. This machine gun was vehicle mounted, and had a firing rate of 350 grenades a minute and a range of 1500 m. … The proposal to add the system to our armored vehicles was decisively rejected by Operations Branch Chief Tal. According to his dogma, what he called “foreign elements” could not be introduced into tank battles.
Although we started searching for a technological solution to the SAG or missile about 10 days after the outbreak of the war the moment the first missiles fell into our hands, we were unable to find a shortcut or a quick solution…. Tal now invoked his authority as Deputy CGS… [with others]… he put all his energy into finding a solution to the problem. The solution he selected involved positioning net fences and coiled barbed wire around tank encampments in order to cause early detonation of fired Sagger missiles before they hit the tanks themselves. NOTE 6.
Despite our best efforts it took more time to develop responses to the Sagger missile. Many ideas were tried… including the possibility of disrupting the missile command system in midflight, misdirecting the missile navigator, and physically obstructing the missile with a steel net in close proximity of the target. The simple Russian missile was not susceptible to our disruption efforts, and we only found a proper solution to the threat posed by the Sagger missile years later. NOTE 7.
But of course, the Russians were not sleeping, and they had better weapons on the drawing board, already. But that’s another story, perhaps for some other day.
Meanwhile their 1973-vintage missiles were a key to the Arab nations’ hopes to recover territory, and pride, lost in the calamitous defeat of 1967. That’s the next, and we think last, installment of this story, the story of early ATGMs.
- Eilam disagrees with this, noting that US policy was only to provide new technology to Israel once the Israelis had shown themselves capable of producing their own, in order to discourage “escalation” and an “arms race.” These are diplomatic (i.e., State Department) terms; while the US DOD then strongly slanted towards Israel, State was then (as now) a hotbed of antisemitism and anti-Israeli feeling.
- All these charts come from US Army, TRADOC Bulletin 1u, and were originally prepared as briefing view-graphs (powerpoint before there was powerpoint).
- Rabinovich, Kindle Locations 653-655
- Rabinovich, Kindle Locations 2092-2108.
- Eilam, p. 108.
- Eilam, pp. 138-139.
- Eilam, p. 148.
Kelly, Orr. King of the Killing Zone: The Story of the M1, America’s Super Tank. New York: WW Norton & Co., 1989.
Eliam, Uzi. Eliam’s Arc: How Israel Became a Military Technology Powerhouse. Sussex University Press, 2011.
Rabinovich, Abraham. The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
US Army, Training and Doctrine Command. TRADOC Bulletin 1u: Range and Lethality of US and Soviet Anti-Armor Weapons. Ft. Monroe, VA: TRADOC, 30 September 1975. Retrieved from: http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a392784.pdf