Amnesty’s report on weapons used by both sides in Gaza finds much to condemn. The group is particularly hard on the U.S., having found numerous remains of American munitions — including white phosphorus shells from Pine Bluff Arsenal, and a Hellfire missile made in Orlando. Another weapon which bothers Amnesty is a mysterious munition, filled with cubic particles.
"Amnesty International delegates in Gaza also found evidence of the use of a new type of missile, seemingly launched from unmanned drones, which explodes large numbers of tiny sharp-edged metal cubes, each between 2 and 4 mm square in size. This purpose-made shrapnel can penetrate even thick metal doors and many were seen by Amnesty International’s delegates embedded deep in concrete walls. They appear designed to cause maximum injury…
The signature of these new missiles, in addition to the deadly tiny metal cubes, is a small and deep hole in the ground (about 10 cm or less in diameter and up to several meters in depth) [emphasis mine]While it’s impossible to say for certain, we can make a very educated guess that where the shrapnel came from -– and also evaluate the claim about maximum injury.
One likely candidate is the Spike missile, made by the Israeli company Rafael (not to be confused with the U.S. Navy’s Spike missile we featured previously) . Originally designed as an anti-tank missile, it is comes in several versions — including a man-portable one and a vehicle-mounted version. It has also been shown fitted to the Israeli Heron drone. A naval version is featured in this video, being used against targets in Gaza.
One interesting feature of the Spike is that the latest version features "fire and forget plus": a trailing fiber-optic cable relays video back to the operator, allowing them to see from the missile’s point of view and switch targets. When used in this mode, it performs a pop-up maneuver, giving a better view and diving on the target from above. A promotional video here shows how this approach can be used to attack a target out of sight behind a ridge.
Marc Garlaso of Human Rights Watch previously noted the Spike’s use in Gaza, describing it as "a special missile that is made to make very high-speed turns, so if you have a target that is moving and running away from you, you can chase him with the weapon."
Like virtually all anti-tank missiles, the Spike has a shaped charge warhead, which produces a narrow jet of metal at very high velocity. This is excellent for slicing through armor, but does little damage to anything not immediately in front of the missile. Blast alone is not an effective killer for a small warhead. To turn an anti-tank missile into a general purpose one capable of damaging other targets (such as people or soft vehicles), the answer is invariably to add a "fragmentation sleeve."
This is wrapped around the warhead to produce lethal fragments, which are much more deadly than blast alone. The procedure was done to turn the anti-tank Hellfire into the general-purpose AGM-114K Hellfire, and to transform the Viper-Strike from an anti-armor weapons to anti-everything. The tungsten cubes in Viper Strike weigh 15-30 grains, which would correspond to an three to four-and-a-half millimeter cube, approximately. In other words, right in the range of Amnesty’s mysterious weapon.
However, the Israeli military is not known to have Viper Strikes in its arsenal. But they do have Spike missiles — which could have been outfitted with a fragmentation sleeve.
As the U.S. Army illustration (above) shows, the fragmentation is enhanced by embossing — cutting grooves into the sleeve. But the best method is to pre-form the fragments, typically producing tiny cubes like those shown. The cube shape is not particularly vicious; that’s just how the manufacturing process works. And without any kind of fragments the weapons would be far less effective. (Of course you can pack warheads around with ball-bearings or other shrapnel — like Hamas did, with its rockets.)
The end result is a missile which hits the ground almost vertically after the pop-up, leaving a narrow deep hole as described, and spraying the area with small cubic shrapnel. This is not some specific Israeli invention and it is far from the only nation armed with this type of weapon. It’s really just another version of Henry Shrapnel’s bursting ammunition which has been increasing casualties for over two hundred years. But unless it gets banned like nerve gas and dumdum bullets it will be very much a part of warfare for more centuries to come.
Perhaps what is more alarming is the number of civilian deaths that Amnesty documents related to the new weapon. This type of ultra-precise strike capability is supposed to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties. But, as with the "focused lethality" DIME weapon, this does not seem to be happening. So we turn once again to Garlasco’s comment, from an earlier conflict:
"It is unfortunate that these weapons are being developed specifically for use in densely populated areas which may negate the intended effect."