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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- U.S. Surprised By Iraqi Use Of 'Kornet' Antitank Missiles

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is embedded with a unit of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division currently outside Najaf, a city in central Iraq now encircled by U.S. troops following 36 hours of heavy fighting. He reports that U.S. troops are encountering an unanticipated, and formidable, weapon in the Iraqi arsenal -- Russian-built Kornet antitank missiles.

Najaf, Central Iraq; 27 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. military intelligence is warning American troops that Iraqi soldiers have begun to use a wire-guided missile system against American tanks that the U.S. military previously did not know they possessed.

It is called the AT-14 Kornet surface-to-surface missile. It has a range of 3.5 kilometers, and it is emerging as the Iraqis' most effective direct-fire weapon against U.S. armor in the desert of southern Iraq.

Iraqi commandos traveling in three-man teams dressed in black civilian robes and riding in Nissan pickup trucks have been moving against the flanks of columns of armor from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division and launching broadside attacks from several kilometers away using the system. Those attacks have already disabled at least two Abrahms tanks and one Bradley armored troop carrier.

U.S. military intelligence officials are extremely interested in capturing one of the missiles intact. They also are instructing American soldiers who destroy one of the Kornet launchers to save the remains of the system for close inspection.

The Kornet is a Russian-built missile system developed by the KBP Instrument Design-Making Bureau in Tula. It is primarily designed to destroy tanks, but can also be used against fortifications, entrenched troops, and small-scale targets. It has been used by the Russian Army and has reportedly been sold to the Syrian Army.

The appearance of the Kornet system in Iraq is of particular interest to U.S. officials because of a recent dispute with Moscow over its alleged weapons sales to Baghdad. The U.S. State Department has accused KBP of supplying Iraq with the Kornet missiles, something KBP and Moscow have vehemently denied.

In a phone call on 24 March with U.S. President George W. Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the American allegations of Russian sales of missiles, night-vision goggles, and radio-jamming equipment were "groundless."

The AT-14 Kornet is a wire-guided missile system. In such a system, the missile literally pulls a thin wire along behind it as it moves toward its target. Those who fire the Kornet control it by keeping the sights of their launcher trained on the target. That way, the missile can be guided at moving targets like tanks and armored troop carriers.

As a direct-fire weapon, the missile travels in a straight line, rather than in an arc, as it would with mortar or howitzer artillery.

Direct fire is considered more effective than indirect-fire weapons like the mortar artillery because the person who is firing the weapon can see the target himself, rather than relying on forward troops to spot and provide information on where the target is.

But the need to keep a Kornet launcher's sights locked on the target means that it must remain stationery after it has fired. After a Kornet missile has traveled 3.5 kilometers, the guidance wire has completely uncoiled and breaks. The missile then becomes erratic, no longer able to lock onto the target.

Another disadvantage of wire-guided missiles is that they cannot be fired over trees, power lines, telephone lines, or water. That's because the wire will snag and break, or will malfunction, disabling the guidance system. That means the Kornet will lose its effectiveness against U.S. tanks once the U.S. forces advance near the canals and power lines around Baghdad.

But for now, in the open desert, the Kornet's 3.5-kilometer range is helping Iraqi forces to equalize the advantage that U.S. weapons have had in earlier battles in this war because of their superior range. A U.S. Abrahms tank has an effective range of 3 kilometers and can destroy targets as far away as 4 kilometers:

The range of depleted-uranium ammunition fired from the 25-millimeter chain gun of a Bradley troop carrier is classified information, but I have seen that weapon fired in battle here in Iraq and it rivals that of the Kornet.