Reuters van attack: 70mm unguided rocket?

So I e-mailed Noah Shachtman of Defense Tech and asked him to look at the photo of the Reuters van that was hit by the IAF in hopes of identifying what ordnance they used. While conceding that the damage looked “strange, strange,” he said he wasn’t overly familiar with the Israeli arsenal and therefore refused to speculate — a show of scruples and prudence which, if there’s any justice, will lead to his immediate excommunication from the Church of Blogging.

Fortunately, a reader claiming to be an intel expert who’s done some work on battle-damage assessment shot me an e-mail about it soon afterward. Here’s what he had to say (all emphases mine):

The van was hit with either the “M” variant of the Hellfire missile or a 70mm unguided rocket.

The AGM-114M Hellfire is a recent variant that, unlike earlier models, is not designed to penetrate armor. If the van had been hit with an anti-armor variant, the van would have been toast. Although a van like that does have decent armor, it’s nothing compared to a tank, which is what the Hellfire is designed to destroy. If you do a search on youtube for “hellfire missile”, you’ll see what I mean. With the new war on terror, the “M” variant was developed to attack “soft” targets like personnel in the open and unarmored vehicles. It’s designed to do blast and fragmentation damage.

The damage on the van looks a little light to me for this missile, but it’s still possible given the armor. The way the Hellfire works is that it’s a top-attack weapon. It’s designed to fly up and then dive down at the target – not hit it from the side, like you’d expect from a low-angle helicopter shot… The missile detonates above the target, spraying the surrounding area with shrapnel. The large dent and rupture in the top above the passenger seat is probably the nose of the missile (if it was a hellfire). The front of the missile is a guidance and electronics section, followed by the warhead, and finally the rocket motor. The front section on these missiles doesn’t always blow apart and it could have continued downward to cause the large dent and tear in the metal skin. The diameter of the indentation is two [sic] small to be blast damage from a hellfire which, like I said, explode above the target.

One problem with my hellfire theory is that the Israeli’s [sic] are not supposed to have the “M” variant yet. They had it ordered though. It’s possible that we shipped them some ahead of schedule similar to what happened with some other ordnance they were running low on. This would not be at all unusual, but I haven’t seen any reporting on this specific missile. Another problem with this theory is that the “victims” reported two missiles. Two Hellfires are never fired near-simultaneously at the same target (and even if they were, they would both hit). It’s possible another Hellfire went after a nearby target and gave the impression of two missiles. This kind of thing is hard to judge based on the limited information we have. The final problem with this theory is that the damage still does not look heavy enough to me. I can’t say for sure though, since the “M” variant is new and I’ve never seen it in action before.

My second theory, which I think is a slightly more probable, is that the van was attacked with two 70mm unguided rockets. Apaches and other helicopters frequently carry pods with these rockets. Here’s what they look like fired at night. Although unguided, at close range they are very accurate. This scenario would better fit the report of two rockets since they are usually fired in pairs. Although not definitive, the damage could easily have come from hit from one of these rockets. The 70mm rocket has a smaller warhead than the hellfire and is typically impact detonated. I think the damage seen is consistent with a rocket of this type.

Also, if you carefully watch the video of the van that first came out, you’ll notice a hole immediately above the left headlight. Because of the angle of attack for both a Hellfire, and a rocket, I don’t see how that hole could have been made there from a blast at or above the roof. However, a second rocket, hitting a short distance in front of the van could have caused that, which would be consistent with two rockets being fired. But this is pretty weak evidence – that hole could be from a lot of things.

So, in my view, it’s a tossup with a slight lead to the 70mm rocket theory in my mind.

A word about fighting at night. Much has been made in the MSM about the fact that the Van was emblazoned with Press, etc. Well, this means jack … at night unless the paint is designed to be seen in the Infrared spectrum. Attack systems use IR sensors at night – so a vehicle’s paint scheme can’t seen at all. The pilots were undoubtedly flying using image-intensifying NVG’s, but they are not magnified and you can’t make out detail with them from a distance. You can see the poor contrast they have by watching NVG videos on TV. So, it’s really impossible for the Israeli’s [sic]to know it was a press van at the time, especially since it was in close proximity to actual fighting. Press people who get in the midst of a battle at night are stupid. Identifying non-hostile targets is much more difficult. I suspect from the Israeli perspective it looked like reinforcements. Judging from the probable weapons used, the Israeli’s [sic] also didn’t realize it was armored – that’s something else that you can’t tell from IR – it just looks like a van or SUV. If they could tell it was armored, they would have used an anti-armor weapon.

Finally, a word on rust. There’s been a lot of talk about rust, including comments on several blogs about the Reuters van. Let me assure you that it doesn’t take visible surface rust very long to form in the Lebanese climate. If you look up the weather data for Lebanon for the past few days, you’ll see it’s been hot with 70 – 80% humidity. In that environment, rust can form very fast. This is especially true with metal exposed through battle damage. The missile explosion, or whatever, not only strips off the paint, but also the factory-applied galvanization designed to inhibit rust. With no protection in a hot humid environment, rust can and does form pretty fast – within a day or two easily. Overnight under ideal conditions. If you look at the first video of the van, you don’t see rust, but pictures taken a day or maybe two later show lots of rust.

Any Air Force people out there able to confirm/deny any of this?

Here’s FAS’s page on 70mm unguided rockets. If that was the weapon they used, it sounds like an M151 warhead was the culprit.

Update: Could it have been shrapnel? See here.