Lebanese Troops Hammered ISIS With Laser Guided Artillery Shells in 2017

The United States says it just delivered more than 800 Copperhead projectiles to Lebanon replenish the country's stockpiles.

Lebanese Armed Forces

A brief notice from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut suggests that Lebanese troops pounded ISIS terrorists with hundreds of M712 Copperhead 155mm laser-guided artillery shells during a recent offensive. The United States has now replenished Lebanon’s stocks of that type of ammunition to help the country retain an apparently valuable precision guided munitions capability.

Between Feb. 1 and 6, 2018, the United States delivered more than $112 million in weapons and ammunition to the Lebanese Armed Forces as part of ongoing military assistance projects aimed primarily at supporting the country’s fight against ISIS along its border with Syria, according to the U.S. Embassy's press release. In addition to more than 800 Copperheads, these shipments included eight Bradley Fighting Vehicles, bringing Lebanon’s total fleet of those armored vehicles to 16, and 200 Mk 19 40mm automatic grenade launchers.

“The United States delivered 827 Copperhead artillery rounds to the Lebanese Armed Forces,” the Embassy’s statement said. “Valued at more than $1.4 million, this ammunition replenishes LAF stockpiles used to defeat ISIS in Operation Fajr al Jouroud.”

It’s not clear what this dollar amount necessarily covers. At this price, each round would have cost less than $1,700. The unit cost of the Copperhead is reportedly closer to $70,000.

The video below is from Operation Fajr al Jouroud and appears to show Lebanese artillery units using Copperhead laser-guided artillery shells.

The laser-guided shells haven’t been in production since 1990, though, and they likely came straight from U.S. military stocks. So, whatever entity was in charge of divesting the ammunition may have given them significantly reduced price tag for any number of reasons, possibly including their relative age and that the shells were officially "surplus" or "excess" to their requirements. 

Copperhead already has a relatively limited user base, with Egypt, Jordan, and Taiwan being among the few countries to have received them in the past. In 2007, Australia announced it would replace its projectiles with the German-made SMArt155, which contains two sensor-fuzed anti-tank bomblets.

The M712, which Martin Marietta, now part of Lockheed Martin, first developed in 1975, is effectively a precision glide bomb tucked inside a 155mm artillery shell. Lebanon’s towed M114A1 and M198 howitzers and self-propelled M109 types are all able to fire the projectile, which has two main modes of operation.

Lebanese Armed Forces

Lebanese troops fire an M198 howitzer at ISIS positions during Operation Fajr al Jouroud.

The first involves firing the shell in a normal ballistic trajectory toward the target. At approximately 3,280 yards from the point of impact, the round’s control fins pop out and maneuver it onto the target.

The second setting deploys the fins earlier in the flight path so that the round then glides toward the target area instead. Troops would employ this method if the sky was overcast or other obscurants, such as smoke, sand, or dust made it unlikely that the round falling on its ballistic trajectory would be able to see the laser in enough time to properly correct its course and hit its mark.

The video below shows typical firing sequences for the Copperhead:

In both modes, someone has to continuously designate the target with a laser. In Lebanon, troops on the ground with hand-held laser designators or the country’s AC-208 Combat Caravan light attack aircraft would have most likely marked the targets.

The U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps initially expected to use Copperhead primarily against tanks and other moving targets, which were otherwise difficult for artillery units to accurately engage without a massive barrage across a large area or by using cluster munitions. During the opening stages of Operation Desert Storm in Iraq in 1990, the shells proved themselves to be equally useful for precision attacks against fortifications, radar stations, and other similar high-priority, but fixed targets.

U.S. Army Brigadier General Creighton W. Abrams, then commander of VII Corps Artillery in Germany, describes one attack on Iraqi positions in an article for the service's official Field Artillery professional bulletin in October 1991. After being hit by cluster munitions, “the defenders scurried to a nearby bunker only to have a Copperhead round fly into the laser-designated door of the bunker. Realizing the futility of flight, the rest of the enemy unit surrendered.”

US Army

A Copperhead with its control fins deployed.

We also don’t know if Lebanon actually fired 827 Copperheads during Operation Fajr al Jouroud, which lasted from Aug. 19 to 31, 2017, or what types of targets Lebanese artillery units destroyed with their M712s. If those shells replaced expended rounds one-for-one, this would equate to Lebanese troops firing an average of more than 63 of the rounds every day. By comparison, U.S. Army artillery units fired just over 90 M712s during the first week of Operation Desert Storm, according to Brigadier General Abrams.

Lebanese authorities also say that their operation only resulted in the deaths of 150 ISIS terrorists, which does not seem to align with this level of withering firepower. It is possible that the State Department's statement that the new ammunition would make up for rounds Lebanon's troops specifically fired during Operation Fajr al Jouroud is incorrect and that its forces had been employing Copperheads on a limited basis for months beforehand against ISIS, as well.

At the same time, the country’s artillery forces could have relied on the shells more to destroy bunkers, other structures, and other hard cover rather than target groups of terrorists, just as U.S. forces did in Iraq. In Lebanon, the rounds could have been useful for engaging ISIS vehicles, including suicide car and truck bombs, as well, but only if troops happened to spot them in enough time to call in the strike. Video footage, seen earlier in this piece and below, that the Lebanese military released online does appear to show Copperheads destroying pick-up trucks, various structures, a cave entrance, and troops in the open.

In January 2018, Russian forces also used their own type of laser-guided artillery shell, called Krasnopol, to strike a pickup truck in Syria as it arrived to pick up terrorists from a safe house. The Kremlin said those individuals had been among those involved in a mass drone attack against their bases in the country.

However many shells the Lebanese did use during Operation Fajr al Jouroud and whatever targets those shells destroyed, the projectiles are clearly an important part of the Lebanese Armed Forces’ arsenal and one of its very few precision guided weapon. At present, the aforementioned AC-208s offer the only other significant capability in this regard with their AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. The Lebanese Air Force’s new A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft are slated to gain the ability to fire low-cost Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II (APKWS II) laser-guided 70mm rockets soon.

These weapons could be very important in the near future, even as the threat of ISIS continues to recede. After the end of Operation Fajr al Jouroud, Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun declared victory over the terrorist group, which also steadily lost ground in Iraq and Syria throughout 2017.

But Lebanon faces a more complex situation with regards to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which has been actively supporting Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad and receives significant support from Iran. During the Qalamoun Offensive, which preceded Operation Fajr al Jouroud, it appeared as if the Lebanese military had at least a tacit agreement to keep its activities away from Hezbollah-controlled areas.

The Lebanese Armed Forces now occupy a stronger position along the Syrian border, though, a region typically seen as a sanctuary for Hezbollah. Without a common enemy the two parties could find themselves at risk of a confrontation.

It’s not clear if an outright fight would occur though. Lebanon’s President Aoun is widely seen as friendly with Hezbollah, which is also a controversial member of the country democratically elected government. That relationship has survived significant pressure from the United States and some of Lebanon’s other international partners, as well as a bizarre episode in 2017 in which Saudi Arabia appeared to have essentially briefly kidnapped Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Balkis Press/Abaca/Sipa USA via AP

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri at far right, along with President Michel Aoun, center, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, at left.

In a televised address from Riyadh in November 2017, Hariri announced he was resigning his post and blamed Hezbollah and Iran for his decision. Aoun refused to accept the resignation and when Hariri returned later in the month, he agreed to continue to serve out his term. The debacle only appears to have reinforced Hezbollah’s standing in the country and has given Hariri new-found popularity for having defied his Saudi taskmasters.

If an actual conflict were to break out, precision guided artillery and other munitions could help Lebanese troops mitigate the threat of Hezbollah’s substantial stockpiles of anti-tank guided missiles, rocket artillery, and ballistic missiles. The militant group has also acquired a number of armored and other vehicles over the years that could be prime targets for laser-guided weapons such as Copperhead.

What we do know is that Lebanon’s artillery units now have nearly 830 more of the shells available should a crisis erupt in the near future.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com