INTERVIEW-Israel phasing out flechette tank shells

* Local alternative will replace U.S.-made ammunition

* New shells "more effective against guerrilla tactics"

* New tanks getting anti-rocket defences after losses

(Adds tank defence system, paragraphs 6, 16-20)

By Dan Williams

TEL HASHOMER, Israel, March 14 (Reuters) - Israel is phasing out a U.S.-made tank shell that sprays thousands of deadly darts over a wide area, in favour of a more precise round produced locally, the commander of the Armoured Corps said on Sunday.

With a kill zone of about 300 by 100 metres, "flechette" shells fired in congested Palestinian areas, as well as in Lebanon, have caused civilian casualties and attracted international condemnation.

Flechettes were used during Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip 15 months ago and enough remain in store for several years' worth of training and operations, but no more will be bought, Brigadier-General Agay Yehezkel said in an interview.

"We're phasing them out," said Yehezkel, commander of Israel's armoured spearhead on its Lebanon, Syria and Gaza fronts.

"It's a matter of opting for a shell that performs better, with obvious humanitarian benefits."

He also said that anti-rocket defences being added to new tanks following the losses the corps suffered in Lebanon in 2006 would cover a first few dozen tanks by the end of this year -- an indication that the corps was not expecting war before then.

Yehezkel said flechette rounds would be replaced by Anti-Personnel Anti-Materiel (APAM) 105 mm and 120 mm shells manufactured by state-owned Israel Military Industries.

The APAM explodes directly above its target with a much tighter effective radius than flechettes. By contrast, Yehezkel said, the thousands of 1.5-inch (3.75mm)-long flechettes (French for "darts") burst from their container-shell at a raking angle that could scatter them well beyond the main target.

He said the APAM would be more effective against guerrillas in cover behind rocks than were flechettes, a weapon designed to counter infantry charging over open ground. They could also be used to blow up lightly armoured vehicles, he said.

"The kill zone is much reduced, and focused," Yehezkel said. "No one else has this kind of weapon."

In 2003, Israel's Supreme Court ruled the use of flechettes must be confined to areas "in which the danger to innocent civilians is not actual".

International experts dispute Israel's assertion that enough precautions have been taken by its forces.

When an Israeli tank fired a flechette shell at a Reuters cameraman in the Gaza Strip in 2008, the darts killed not only the journalist, Fadel Shana, but eight other civilians walking on a road nearby. The army said its troops were justified in firing because they believed Shana's camera might be a weapon.


Yehezkel spoke to Reuters at the military's main induction base near Tel Aviv, which reported a record number of draftees opting to spent their three years' mandatory service in tanks.

After the 2006 Lebanon war against Hezbollah, the Armoured Corps was viewed for a time by many young Israelis as a high-risk unit.

Offering rarely issued figures, Yehezkel said that of 250-300 tanks deployed in that war, a half-dozen were destroyed in mine or rocket attacks and more than 30 others were disabled.

Against less well-armed Hamas fighters in the Gaza Strip last year, the only loss suffered by the Armoured Corps, which deployed 130-140 tanks, was a single crewman shot by a sniper.

However, mindful of the risk of new war in the north, or of Hamas securing better weaponry, Israel has pushed development by state-owned Rafael Advanced Defence Systems Ltd. of Trophy, a built-in tank system that shoots down incoming rockets.

Protection for the full Armoured Corps is still some way off, however. Yehezkel said the first 11 Merkava IV tanks to be fitted with Trophy at manufacture would be ready by June and the first battalion -- around 36 tanks -- by year's end.

"Trophy can defeat any anti-tank rocket out there," he said.

In parallel, he said, Israel has been equipping older tanks with systems similar to Trophy that can be fitted to tanks already in service.

Though he repeated official Israeli military assessments that no new wars are expected this year, he said: "We are training like crazy, and we are as ready as ever." (Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Kevin Liffey)