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  • USIEA Team


lsrael Update – Week of February 19, 2024

Artillery: Israel has become a world leader in Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs). Forty years ago, the Israeli Ministry of Defense bet the house that it could develop munitions that could be launched from a distance far away from the target so as not to endanger the crew launching the missile and to impact the target with extremely high precision. The SPIKE NLOS missile and the AGM-142 POPEYE missiles were the first missiles in the world with this capability. These missiles had television cameras that could see the target area and beam back the image to the operator who used a joystick to zero into the target. At the time, no other missiles in the world shared these capabilities. 

Since then, Israel has developed five generations of new weapons, from the SPIKE family of tactical guided weapons to the SPICE family of air-launched weapons. The Israeli stockpile of PGMs has been bolstered by the acquisition of American weapons such as the GBU-32 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) GPS-guided bombs along with the AGM-114 Hellfire laser-guided antitank missile launched from the AH-64E Apache attack helicopter. 

Israel uses PGMs to take out targets in heavily populated urban areas in which the IDF has good intelligence and can pinpoint the target and the target is of value.  The precision of the weapons ensures that only the target is destroyed, leaving nearby buildings intact. Further, high precision reduces the amount of explosive required to destroy the target, meaning that a smaller weapon can be used, further reducing collateral damage. In the current “Swords of Iron” War, Israel’s judicious use of PGMs is reducing casualties of noncombatants to the bare minimum, even while Hamas have embedded themselves in the local civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, mosques, and schools. 

Another type of weapon is being used in the war by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in numbers greater than ever before. This weapon is the 155mm artillery shell. Each shell is about 2 feet long, weighs about 100 pounds, and carries about 25 pounds of high explosive. The shell is loaded into a cannon, and the cannon is aimed at the target in a precise manner, accounting for the curvature of the earth, winds, the weather, and even the rotation of the earth (the “Coriolis Effect”). 

As opposed to a PGM, an artillery shell is unguided. The cannon is fired, and the shell follows a ballistic trajectory (think of a thrown ball) to its target. It essentially lands, well, where it lands. The precision of a 155mm artillery shell is about one percent of its range. This means that if the shell is fired at the maximum range of about 25 km (about 15 miles), then half of the shells will fall less than 250 meters (about 275 yards) from the target. While a 155mm artillery shell is far more precise than Hamas rockets that are being fired at Israeli towns – if a salvo of Katyusha rockets is fired at a target 25 km away, then half the rockets will fall less than about a kilometer and a half from its target – the precision of a 155mm artillery shell is nowhere near that of a PGM: JDAM has a precision of about 10 meters, SDB has a precision of about 1 meter, and SPIKE has a precision of about 10 centimeters, regardless of the range. And yet, in the current conflict, the IDF has fired tens of thousands of artillery shells at Gaza and southern Lebanon (the actual number is classified). 

The IDF is still very concerned about collateral damage and abiding by the laws of international warfare. However, the use of PGMs is becoming more difficult with concentrated civilian population in Gaza and Hamas hiding behind their people and using them as shields.

The key advantage artillery shells over PGMs is the price: a 155mm shell costs in the order of $2,000 while a PGM costs $100,000 or more.  Meanwhile, according to IDF officers I know, use of artillery fire has been extremely successful in Gaza in providing a blanket over maneuvering troops and preventing Hamas terrorists from firing at IDF soldiers. The limited accuracy of the shells is countered by firing them in salvos. 

The biggest problem the IDF has with 155mm artillery shells is in attaining them. There is only one company in Israel that produces artillery shells, the Elbit company, who bought out the Soltam company in 2010. Shells are produced in only one factory, in Yoqneam, about 10 miles south of the port city of Haifa. While the production rate at Elbit is classified, it was recently announced that Elbit signed a $60 million deal with IDF to provide one year’s worth of shells. Using elementary mathematics, it can be calculated that Elbit produces a bit more than 3,000 shells a month. This number is a small fraction of what the IDF needs. In a two-front war, it is estimated that the IDF will use about 3,000 shells each day. If a third front were to open up, that number could more than double. Where will the IDF procure the artillery shells that it needs?

Unsurprisingly, the answer is “The U.S.” Indeed, Israel has been receiving artillery shells from the U.S. via a nearly non-stop airlift that has been going on since President Biden’s visit to Israel immediately following the October 7 massacre. Recently, the U.S. agreed to sell Israel 60,000 shells at a price of $147.5 million. 

There are two problems with procuring artillery shells in the U.S., and both of these problems are a direct result of the War in the Ukraine. According to the Wall Street Journal, Ukraine is firing about 6,000 155mm artillery shells daily – about 200,000 shells each month (The Russians are firing more than 10,000 daily). Since the war with Russia broke out in February 2022, the Ukraine has used more than 2 million shells, the vast majority produced in the U.S. The problem is that American production capacity is currently about 28,000 each month. Not only is there a shortfall of shells, but the economics of supply and demand have resulted in the price of artillery shells jumping by a factor of 4. If two years ago, a 155mm shell cost $2,000, today it costs more than $8,000. In response to lagging U.S. supply, Israel is ramping up local production. Increasing the production rate takes time – years – something that Israel simply does not have. And so Israel will remain dependent on American shells for the near foreseeable future.

While increased local Israeli production of artillery shells is clearly a necessity, there is a problem that is “baked into the cake.” The Hezbollah – an Iranian proxy in Lebanon – possesses an arsenal of around 150,000 rockets. The vast majority of these are unguided, but a small but growing number of them are equipped with GPS-based guidance systems, giving them the same kind of precision as the American JDAMs used by the IDF. These weapons are likely already targeted on key Israeli assets, to be used at the push of a button should things in the north go south. Potential targets include electrical power plants in Hadera and Ashqelon, water desalination plants along the Mediterranean coast, and weapons production facilities, especially those in the north of the country. One of these production facilities is RAFAEL, where Iron Dome, SPIKE and SPICE are manufactured. I happen to work at RAFAEL, and I can tell you that I am uneasy. A few weeks ago, I walked into the synagogue in my building, which is located in one of the bomb shelters. One of the book shelves had been emptied of all books and replaced with dozens of bottles of bottled water and hundreds of plastic cups, along with a sign stating “For Emergency Use, Only.” Another factory that would most certainly be targeted on Day 1 of a war would be the Elbit facility near Yoqneam that manufactures 155mm artillery shells. Its location is well known – it is even called out on Google Maps as the Elbit Systems Soltam Plant (M493+FJ Yokne'am Illit). While one would assume that the plant is protected by an Iron Dome battery or two, a saturation attack on the plant has the potential to inflict considerable damage. It is thus true but counterintuitive that a plant that produces unguided weapons for the world’s biggest user of PGMs is under threat from PGMs fired by a terrorist organization with one of the world’s largest stockpile of unguided weapons.

Welcome to the Middle East.


Good things,

Ari Sacher

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