| An M1A1 Abrams tank crew member awaits orders in southern Iraq. (Reuters)
Doha, April 3 (Reuters): Among the many surprises that awaited the invading forces in Iraq was their enemy’s ability to knock out the US army’s most advanced battle tank.
Defence analysts believe that the three — perhaps five — M1-A2 Abrams tanks which have been disabled so far appear to have been hit by a weapon far more potent than the decades-old RPG-7 rocket propelled grenade.
Instead, it seems the Iraqis — who say they have knocked out dozens of US tanks — may be using the Kornet-E, an export version of a Russian laser-guided missile which can destroy tanks fitted with explosive reactive armour.
“We’re pretty sure they do have them,” said Robert Hewson, editor of Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons. “It is a nasty surprise (for US forces) and they will have to adapt their tactics. But it won’t be a showstopper and it is no cause for huge alarm.”
Where Iraq might have procured the Kornet-E in the face of a a UN ban on weapons sales to the country is not clear.
The Interfax news agency said on Tuesday the Ukrainian foreign ministry had denied reports that Ukrainian firms had supplied several hundred such anti-tank missiles to Iraq.
According to the website www.army-technology.com, the tripod-launched Kornet-E system has been sold to the Syrian army.
Last week US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, serving a blunt warning to Damascus, said Washington had information that night vision goggles and other military equipment was crossing from Syria into Iraq.
The US army fielded around 1,900 M1 Abrams in the 1991 Gulf War. Eighteen allied tanks were knocked out during that campaign, half by mines and half by “friendly fire”.
The Abrams, developed 20 years ago, is not impenetrable. It weighs 70 tonnes thanks to heavy armour on its frontal arc but would be an impossible 100 tonnes if it was as well protected on its sides and rear.
But Hewson said RPG-7 grenades, with an effective range of 300 metres, would bounce off “the queen of the battlefield”.
The RPG-7 is one of the commonest anti-tank weapons in the world: it was widely used by the Soviet army and by both sides during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
The Kornet-E has a range of around 5 km.
The operator uses either optical or thermal sights to track a target, and the missile — whose warhead first burrows a small hole in a tank and then goes whipping around inside the vehicle — is guided by a laser beam.
Jane’s Defence Weekly land forces editor Christopher Foss said two people can carry this anti-tank missile and it can be mounted on the back of a jeep.
But unless the operating crews are well trained and know how to use the Kornet-E tactically it is of little use, he said.
The Kornet-E also comes with alternative warheads that produce a huge ball of fire and suck up oxygen, which can be used against bunkers, fortifications and exposed infantry.