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M109 155mm SPG Rochev / Doher

The M109 self-propelled Howitzer gun, known by IDF as "Rochev" (Rider), entered the Artillery forces' service before the Yom Kippur War (1973). In that war, only one battalion was equipped with these guns, the "Tiger" battalion. Doher (galloper) was introduced to artillery forces personnel in 1993, Doher is improved Rochev (M109A1 and M109A2). The IDF maintenance units designed it. This model was the last of a series of designs, the only one of which made it into serial production. From this year, until 1997, all of the active service Rochevs were replaced by the Doher. After the active service units received their share, the IDF began to replace some of the reserve units' vehicles. By 2015 reserve units had both the Doher & Rochev.

During the 1982 Lebanon War, self-propelled 155mm M109 howitzers were brought forward in urban battles like in Sidon and Tsur to provide effective direct fire support against enemy positions in buildings and bunkers. The infantry would advance slowly until they encountered sniper or RPG fire, and then call forward the M109. The effect of the 155mm HE artillery round was superior to that of a tank HESH maich or HEAT chalool round, and would bring down the entire building. This tactic was considered effective and saved the lives of many soldiers. The M107 155mm HE projectile weighs about 44kg while a 120mm HE projectile weighs only about a third of this.

On 23 July 2014, the Human Rights Council, in its resolution S-21/1, decided to “urgently dispatch an independent, international commission of inquiry to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military operations conducted since 13 June 2014. On 7 July 2014, the Israel Defense Forces commenced operation ‘Protective Edge’ in the Gaza Strip, with the stated objective of stopping the rocket attacks by Hamas and destroying its capabilities to conduct operations against Israel.

The IDF’s ground operation was marked by significant use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in densely populated areas, including the use of artillery and tank shells, mortars and air dropped high explosive munitions. The IDF reported that during the operation, 5000 tons of munitions were supplied. During Operation “Protective Edge,” 14 500 tank shells and approximately 35 000 artillery shells were fired. Haaretz quoted IDF information indicating that, before the end of July, after three weeks of fighting, 30 000 shells had been discharged, “four times as much as in Cast Lead in 2008”. The NGO “Action on Armed violence” (AOAV) observes that, while in Operation Cast Lead in 2008 3000 high-explosive artillery shells were fired, in 2014 there were 19 000, a 533% increase. Based on figures suggesting that over the course of 2014’s fifty-day operation, a daily average of 680 artillery shells were fired in Gaza by the IDF (compared to 348 per day in the 2008-09 operation).

Israeli statements indicated that artillery was used in urban areas only on an exceptional basis when neighborhoods were known to be largely evacuated and followed stringent protocols. Even with these strict conditions, the use of artillery with wide-area effects in densely populated areas resulted in a large number of civilian casualties and widespread destruction of civilian objects. The commission is therefore of the view that the use of such artillery is not appropriate in densely populated areas regardless of the legality of resorting to such weapons.

The explosive power of these weapons and the amount of ordnance used is not the only cause of concern. The fact that indirect-fire systems such as 155mm artillery or mortars are considered ‘statistical weapons’ demonstrate that the wide area dispersal of their shells is an expected outcome, as this is how these weapons were designed to work. Based on research into the use of weapons in Operation “Protective Edge”, AOAV concluded: “The Doher [self-propelled artillery that fires the 155mm shells] is clearly a powerful and destructive weapon system. It is capable of firing large numbers of heavy, high explosive artillery shells across great distances in a short space of time. It is not, however, capable of firing these munitions in a precise manner. As such AOAV believed that such weapon systems should not be used by the IDF in attacks against residential neighbourhoods or near to other populated areas.”

For instance, on 20 July, at 6.30 a.m., 11 members of the Ayyad family were killed by shells in Al Mansura Street, Shuja’iya, as they left their home to escape the shelling. The photos of the damage and of remnants of weapons received by the commission were consistent with these testimonies and indicate that the weapons used were most likely 155 mm high explosive artillery shells, which have fuses set to air-burst and are designed to cause as much damage as possible to persons out in the open. The shells would have exploded just above the ground resulting in the high numbers of casualties reported and causing the shrapnel patterns displayed on the walls and vehicles, which were without signs of significant blast damage or cratering.

Another concern in this context is the safety distance for firing artillery near residential houses. According to Human Rights Watch, the “lethal radius for a 155mm high explosive projectile […] is reportedly between 50 and 150 meters and the expected casualty radius is between 100 and 300 meters [and] the error radius for a 155mm shell is usually 25 meters.” While the IDF had not so specified, its current rules appeared to permit using 155mm artillery against targets located 100 meters from civilian homes (while the safety margin is 250 meters from IDF forces), as pointed out by a group of NGOs in 2006. The army made no attempt to deny the fact that a decision was taken to reduce the minimal space allowed between a civilian population and the area from which the army fires shells from 300 meters to only 100 meters.

The UN commission noted that, according to official sources, “the IDF directives applicable to the 2014 Gaza Conflict set stringent restrictions on the use of HE [high explosives] artillery shells — restrictions that went above and beyond the IDF’s obligations under the Law of Armed Conflict and which were imposed as a matter of policy. These directives generally prohibited the firing of HE shells into populated areas and required the observance of specified “safety margins,” i.e. set distances from civilians. The current distances set forth for HE artillery were updated as part of the “lessons-learned” process the IDF conducted following the 2008-2009 Gaza Conflict. The IDF determined these distances on the basis of research conducted by technical experts, focusing on the accuracy of each artillery calibre and its dispersal range.” However, the fact that the shelling during Operation Protective Edge led to many deaths and injuries shows that the safety distance for artillery was insufficient to ensure the protection of civilians.

The concerns linked to the use of artillery in densely populated areas appeared to be shared by some in the Israeli defence establishment. According to media reports the former Chief Legal Adviser to the Israel Defence Ministry wrote in 2008, that “Artillery fire can only be directed to relatively open areas…Artillery fire toward urban spaces is problematic if the estimation is that the chances of a shell hitting a [rocket] launcher is relatively small while the danger of many civilians being hurt is real.”

The way in which Operation “Protective Edge” was conducted was not modified after initial episodes where artillery shelling resulted in significant civilian casualties. This seems to indicate that the manner of operating may be in accordance with the IDF’s current policies governing the use of imprecise and/or inaccurate weapons in densely populated areas, including the safety distance requirement.

Article 51(4) of Additional Protocol I, which reflects customary international law, defines indiscriminate attacks as: “(a) those which are not directed at a specific military objective; (b) those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective; or (c) those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol; and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.”

The large impact area of some of the explosive weapons used by the IDF during the ground operations, including the large air dropped bombs and 155mm shells; the sheer volume of ordnance fired towards areas of Gaza; and the imprecise nature of artillery, including mortars; make it difficult for an attacking party using those methods and means in a densely populated and built up area to distinguish between civilians and civilian objects and the military objective of the attack, and thus to limit the attack’s effects as required by international humanitarian law.

The Report of the detailed findings of the independent commission of inquiry established pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution S-21/1 [A/HRC/29/CRP.4] concluded "Therefore, the use of weapons with widearea effects by the IDF in the densely populated, built up areas of Gaza, and the significant likelihood of lethal indiscriminate effects resulting from such weapons, are highly likely to constitute a violation of the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks. Depending on the circumstances, such use may qualify as a direct attack against civilians, and may therefore amount to a war crime."

BAE Systems’ live fire test in 2015 demonstrated that its Rokar Silver Bullet precision guidance kit can transform a standard 155mm artillery shell into a highly accurate munition. The system’s advanced ability to self-correct in flight greatly increases effectiveness while reducing collateral damage, allowing more precise engagement in urban environments and against protected targets. “The Silver Bullet precision guidance kit provides military commanders with additional operational flexibility, through a higher hit capability and increased mission effectiveness for artillery forces,” said Nir Lavi, general manager of BAE Systems Rokar. “Silver Bullet can significantly enhance the warfighter’s ability to operate on the modern battlefield.”

By 2015 State-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) stood to win a major Israel Army contract for its TopGun, a precision guidance kit that converts standard 155mm artillery shells into precision munitions. TopGun converts standard artillery ammunition into a precision guided weapon, by using a guidance integrated fuze, without significantly altering firing routines. TopGun performs 2D correction of the ballistic trajectory, i.e. it reduces dispersion in both range and deflection for improved accuracy - 20 m CEP at any range. Once concluded, the Israeli contract could exceed $100 million over the next decade, with many more hundreds of millions anticipated in export sales.

The Tucson, Ariz.-based unit of Raytheon is looking into more gold-plated solutions for ground forces, such as the precision-guided XM982 Excalibur 155mm artillery round. The shell is intended to hit targets at more than 40 miles away with an accuracy of less than 10 meters. Current artillery rounds have a 100-meter accuracy. The round is particularly suited to the kind of urban warfare encountered by coalition forces in Iraq and would be more responsive than air-dropped rounds.

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