Hezbollah’s missile arsenal and rocket threat
17 July 2006
Last week’s attack by Hezbollah on an IDF patrol on Israel’s border with Lebanon, in which two soldiers were kidnapped and another three were killed, has led to a rapid intensification of military confrontation between Israel and Lebanon. In response, Israel has struck targets associated with Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon and in Beirut. Since then, Hezbollah has launched a barrage of missiles on northern Israel, including the major population centres of Haifa, Afula, Acre and Tiberias, reaching a range of up to 50 kilometres (km) and killing 20 Israelis.1
In deploying missiles capable of targeting these cities, Hezbollah in fact confirmed assessments that it obtained long-range weapons with the support of Iran, North Korea, Russia and China. What is the extent of Hezbollah’s arsenal of missiles? What capacity does Israel have to counter such weapons? And what threat does the current situation pose for Israel?
Missiles, or rockets, are barrel-launched weapons consisting of three principal components. The forward section of the missile contains explosive material - the warhead. The body section contains the fuel, either liquid or solid, which powers the missile’s flight, and the tail section contains the engine and systems used to stabilise the missile during flight. More advanced missiles can also include guidance systems. Missile systems, including launch, fire control and command components, are generally light and mobile, and can be quickly constructed and disassembled to avoid detection and attack.
Hezbollah possesses a variety of missiles with different ranges. Current Israeli assessments estimate that the total Hezbollah arsenal contains between 10,000 to 12,000 missiles.2 The large majority of the missiles are generically referred to as Katyusha (Russian for “Little Katy”) rockets, a designation which covers a large range of 122 mm rockets from Soviet, Chinese or other stocks. A typical example of the Katyusha type missile is the Soviet 122 mm BM-21 ‘Grad’ missile, which entered the Soviet army service in 1963 with a range of between five and 20 km. Improvements in fuel and launch systems could extend the effective range of Katyusha missiles to as far as 25 km. In early 2001 it was reported that Hezbollah had acquired a number of Chinese 122mm truck-mounted Multi-Barrel Rocket Launcher (MBRL) systems with 24 or 40 tubes, considerably improving its capacity to launch Katyusha missiles in concentrated barrages.3 Until now, Hezbollah has relied almost entirely on Katyusha rockets when attacking Israel.
Briefing the Knesset Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee this week, a senior IDF officer stated that Hezbollah also possesses around 100 rockets capable of reaching targets of 40-70 km.4 This refers to the Iranian Fajr rockets acquired by Hezbollah in recent years. The 240mm Fajr-3 missile has a range of approximately 45 km, and the 333 mm Fajr-5 has a range of around 75km. Iranian production of the Fajr-3 started around 1991, and is closely modelled on North Korean missile systems of similar specifications. The longer-range Fajr-5 system was also constructed with Chinese and North Korean assistance. Although the shorter-range missile is relatively imprecise, the Fajr-5 may have some form of rudimentary guidance capability. In any event, both the Fajr-3 and the Fajr-5 would probably evade Israel's Tactical High-Energy Laser (THEL), currently under Israeli-American development, which is designed to intercept projectiles with a range of 8 to 11 km.5 There are unconfirmed reports that Iran has tested a chemical warhead for the Fajr-5.6 The recent attacks on Israel are the first time that these weapons have been deployed by Hezbollah.
The same assessment also indicated that Israel believes Hezbollah has a small number of weapons with an even longer range.7 This is consistent with reports from October 2002 that the second generation of Iranian Zelzal missiles had been delivered to Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps units in the Hezbollah-controlled Beka'a Valley in Lebanon. The rockets are 8.3 metres long and 61mm in diameter. At launch they weigh about 3.5 tons and because they are propelled by solid fuel, can be easily moved.8 Whilst Hezbollah typically refuses to confirm or deny such reports, senior Hezbollah official Sheikh Mohammed Yazbek may have hinted that Hezbollah had received the weapons when he said "all sensitive areas of the Zionist entity are within the range of our fire... wherever they exist."9
Although the Zelzal-2 missiles have a greater range than any other in Hezbollah’s arsenal, a solid-fuel propulsion system and a payload of up to 600 kilograms (kg), the lack of a self-guidance system reduces their accuracy.10 These missiles are an upgraded version of the Zelzal-1 missiles and were first displayed in September 2005 at a military parade in Tehran, together with six long-range SCUD-C and Shihab-3 missiles.11
Although there is no evidence that Hezbollah has yet deployed the Zelzal-2 against Israel, it has claimed that the two rockets which hit Haifa on Sunday – killing eight people and wounding many others - were Raad missiles, another new missile system.12 The Raad is an Iranian modification of the Russian AT-3 Sagger surface-to-surface missile, with a range of around 120 km. The Raad has been in production in Iran since early 2004, and includes shore-to-sea and ship-to-ship variants.13 Updates to the original Russian system include a ‘precursor’ charge, which detonates next-generation reactive armour fitted to tanks and ships. This preserves the main explosive charge contained in the warhead, which then detonates against the unprotected target.
There is also speculation that the attack on an Israeli naval vessel, the INS Spear, utilised yet another new weapon. Early reporting suggested that the attack made use of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or ‘drone’. Hezbollah has twice launched UAVs over Israel, in November 2004 and April 2005, using its Mirsad-1 drones.14 Israel assesses that these UAVs are unmodified Iranian Mohajer-4 drones, rather than indigenously-produced platforms. However, further investigation indicates that the attack on INS Spear, in which four mariners lost their lives, utilised an Iranian-built C-802 radar-guided anti-ship missile.15
The immense missile arsenal possessed by Hezbollah and the threat it poses to towns and cities in the north of Israel can be further understood by comparing it to the ongoing Palestinian rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. The most common rocket deployed by the Palestinian terror organisations is the Qassam, a simple, improvised rocket that lacks any guidance system.16 The Qassam rockets have been produced in two models, which can reach a range of up to ten km and a payload of up to seven kg of explosives. Hundreds of these rockets have been fired from the Gaza Strip towards Israeli communities in the western Negev causing the deaths of eight Israelis and injuring dozens since June 2004.
However, Palestinian terror organisations have been able, most probably with the support of either Iranian or Syrian elements,17 to obtain Katyusha rockets that can have a range of up to 22 km. These rockets have been recently fired by Hamas-supported terrorists and hit the city of Ashkelon, one of the major Israeli residential areas in the south of the country.18
Israel has long been aware of the danger posed by Hezbollah from the south of Lebanon. In April 1996, the IDF’s Operation ‘Grapes of Wrath’ aimed to stop the intense Katyusha fire on Israel’s northern communities. Although a set of internationally-monitored understandings did reduce the level of violence, it persisted until Israel undertook a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000. Despite verification that Israel’s withdrawal constituted a full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 425, Hezbollah continues to dispute the status of the ‘Sheba’a Farms’ area on the Israeli-Syrian border, in order to continue its attacks on Israel. Hezbollah is also in an anomalous position in post-civil war Lebanon, operating both as both independent terror organisation and a political party with government representation.
Israel has developed a number of systems to deal with the threat posed by Hezbollah weapons, and by Qassam rockets deployed by Palestinian factions from Gaza. The joint US-Israeli THEL/Nautilus project, which destroys incoming missiles using high-energy lasers, was successfully tested in May 2004.19 In July 2005 the IDF deployed the Red Dawn system that detects rocket launchings and provides early warnings to local residents. Both of these systems could be deployed in northern Israel. The Patriot anti-missile missile system has already been deployed to counter the threat of Hezbollah missiles.20
Israel has shown its willingness to take difficult steps in the past – through withdrawing from southern Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank – to promote peace in the region. However, when faced with attacks on its sovereign territory, its only choice of reaction can be self-defence. It is time that the international community demand the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah and for the Lebanese government to deploy its forces along the Israel-Lebanon border. Nothing short of this will remove the threat of attack from Israel’s cities and towns, and create a new prospect for peace that moderates on all sides so keenly desire.
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