The Syrian conflict has been marked by an extensive and action-packed usage of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM). The ATGM was primarily developed to hit and destroy armoured military vehicles. However, more recently, it has turned into a weapon employed to eliminate a broad range of targets.
The first ever ATGM was developed and tested in Germany on the basis of the Ruhrstahl X-4 air to air missile concept in 1943 and 1944. After World War 2, the French-developed SS.10 became the first ATGM widely used in combat during the Second Arab–Israeli War in 1956. From then onward, three distinct generations of ATGMs have been developed, with each generation making advances in guidance methods and missile characteristics.
ATGMs are being used not only by infantry, but also appear to be carried by various ground and even air platforms. Anti-tank guided missiles have become one of the main tools employed by attack helicopters against hardened structures and armoured vehicles. Most ATGMs have ranges between 2,000m and 5,000m. However, modern systems may be capable of much larger ranges. For example, the Israeli-developed Spike-ER is capable of delivering effective strikes on targets up to 8,000m away.
Most modern ATGMs employ shaped charge HEAT warheads, designed specifically for penetrating armor. Some versions, with dual-charged detonation, are optimized to defeat explosive reactive armour. Top-attack weapons are designed to strike vehicles from above, where the armour is usually weaker.
First generation ATGMs operated on the ‘manual command to line-of-sight’ (MCLOS) principle. The MCLOS requires a manual input from the operator to guide the missile to its target. Guidance commands are sent to the missile via a wire linking it with the firing unit. After the ATGM launches, the operator must find the missile visually. Depending on the skill of the operator and the firing conditions–like dust clouds or a complex land environment–this may require from one to several seconds. This limits the ability of the operator to hit targets in close proximity (up to 400m) to the firing positions and requires extensive training to achieve a high effectiveness of ATGM launches. The operator also becomes a vulnerable target while guiding the missiles.
The most widely known first generation ATGMs are the Nord Aviation SS.10 and the Soviet-developed 9M14 Malyutka. Despite the aforementioned downsides, first generation ATGMs were a highly effective–and a relatively compact measure–against the enemy’s armoured equipment.
Second generation ATGMs operated on the semi-automatic command to line-of-sight (SACLOS) principle. While there was no longer a need for the operator to guide the missiles manually, the SACLOS still required that the operator keep their sights on the target until impact. Missile flight adjustment is made automatically by the firing unit. Depending on the ATGM variant, guidance commands are sent to the missile via wire, radio, or laser beam. The SACLOS method of missile command guidance reduced the needed qualification of operators. Along with modernized missiles, this allowed for the expansion of the effective range to around 5,000m. Despite these improvements, operators remained vulnerable to attacks due to their immobility.
The US-developed BGM-71 TOW, (the tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided missile), the Soviet/Russian 9M133 Kornet and the French-German MILAN are among the most widely known second generation ATGMs. These systems and their missiles have been repeatedly modernized since their inception. They vary slightly when it comes to guidance and missile characteristics.
Third generation ATGMs employ the “fire-and-forget” (FaF) guidance concept. After the target is identified and the missile is launched, there are no additional actions needed to guide the missile. The operator is free to change his position immediately after firing. The changes in design of the firing unit made these ATGMs lighter than those of previous generations. US FGM-148 Javelin and Israeli Spike are widely-promoted ATGMs of the third generation.
Many of the states that have produced MCLOS systems have stopped production for a variety of reasons: a lower hit probability, operator vulnerability, a limited ability to penetrate modern armour, and sufficient existing stockpiles. Nonetheless, many states produce de-facto copies of missiles designed by others.
The cost of anti-tank guided missiles varies. However, across variants, the cost per shot grew in correlation with improvements in accuracy and effectiveness of the missiles. One Soviet-designed Fagot SACLOS missile costs approximately 4,000 USD. The more modern, but also Soviet-developed SACLOS missile, Konkurs, costs approximately 13,000 USD. The cost of one TOW 2 missile is reportedly near 60,000 USD and one FGM-148 Javelin missile costs 174,000 USD.
As a result of the cost, the systems of the second–and even the first generation–achieved the greatest distribution and widest practical application in local conflicts. For example, in the Syrian conflict, all sides were employing ATGMs of the second and first generations: Malyutka, Fogot, Metis, Kornet and TOW, as well as their copies produced by third parties. US efforts–especially by the CIA–to supply illegal armed groups in Syria with both first and second generation ATGM systems, including BMG-71 TOW missiles. The high saturation of militants with portable anti-tank combat weapons resulted in peculiar qualitative results in the Syrian conflict.
The active use of battle tanks and armored vehicles by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) in the early years of the conflict was successfully repelled by militant infantry units combining the use of artillery and ATGMs. The relatively low level of training of SAA tank crews, the poor coordination with infantry and a constant need to employ military equipment in urban conditions, led to serious losses in tanks and armored equipment. Battle tanks began to be used only when they were supported large infantry forces, or as a mobile firing position.
The powerful flow of ATMG supplies and the changes in the SAA’s tactics caused a situation where illegal armed groups were gaining enough resources to use the costly ATGMs, not only against military equipment, but also against fortified positions, buildings and even infantry units. Along with IED ambushes, ATGM strikes became a key tool of guerilla war. ATGMs were employed against checkpoints, military columns and even aircraft on the ground. In this case, they key advantages of the ATGM over the IED was the distance between gunner and target, as well as a greater flexibility of the ATGM for target designation.
For its part, the SAA and its allies also used ATGMs against a wide range of enemy targets. This type of weapon was particularly effective in countering the massive usage of armored suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices by the so-called “moderate opposition”.
Anti-tank guided missile strikes remained an integral part of the conflict, even after the completion of the most active phase of hostilities. In conditions of low intensity trench warfare near the Idlib de-escalation zone, both rebels and the SAA used anti-tank guided weapons against fortified positions and even individual enemy targets. Despite the high economic cost, this tactic demonstrated its usefulness, especially in terms of exerting psychological pressure on opponents and the demonstration of the availability to respond in the event of an “unexpected” escalation of the situation in a separate sector of the front.
The Syrian case is not unique. In eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian Army uses ATGMs against fortified positions and even separate targets of self-defense forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luganks People’s Republic (LPR). The difference between Ukraine and Syria is that DPR and LPR forces have no resources to respond to attacks in a similar costly manner.
Taking all things together, ATGM has strengthened its position at a battlefield as an effective tank-killing and even antipersonnel weapons system. As long ago as the 1980s, platoons equipped with first-generation ATGM were part of infantry and armored battalions in the US Army. A while later, in infantry battalions the heavy anti-tank missile platoon was organized as a separate company (E Company). In the late 1980s, there was a fourth “line” company added (D Company) in most infantry and tank battalions. Starting in 2005–2006, the U.S. Army’s mechanized and tank battalions were reorganized into combined arms battalions (CABs). In the Russian Army, since 2010, each infantry company has had an ATGM section in 9 persons. Each infantry battalion has had a separate tank-killing platoon. By today, the US Army is significantly more saturated with ATGMs than the Russian one.
Modern combined combat tactics at the company level and higher expects the active use of ATGM. The development of these systems has led to a significant increase combat efficiency simultaneously simplifying the work of its operators. As a result, the range of tasks that troops can solve with the assistance of anti-tank systems has been expanded.
On the battlefield, ATGM sections, as integrated parts of companies and battalions, are usually used in the second line (in tactical depth at a distance of 150-300 m from the first line).
While ATGMs continue to be developed taking into account their original purpose–the destruction of armored vehicles–developers of modern systems are paying increasing attention to adapting this type of weapons to defeat fortified objects, firing points, and even soft targets like infantry in open areas. Other important factors that concern the producers of ATGMs is the need to increase portability and cost effectiveness, with the latter being the reason why first and second generation AGTMs, including their latest modifications like TOW and Kornet, continue to dominate the battlefields of local conflicts around the world, despite the existence of third generation ATGMs.
Costly third generations systems, however, remain prioritized in service with conventional armies of the leading powers, which are not involved in these local conflicts on the ground that would require the usage of such ATGMs en masse.
ATGM usage against a broad range of targets has practical purposes in long-term positional conflict. In this case, the use of anti-tank guided missiles makes sense only against targets that are comparable in value or impact on the battlefield. For example, anti-sniper or sniper groups, positions of automatic grenade launcher crews, HQs etc. In general, their use against fortifications occupied by infantry units can be viewed as an element of harassing fire.