by Jassem Al Salami.
The 2014 Gaza conflict marks a new breaking point in Israel-Palestine balance of power. From 1982 when Palestinian militia started to fire rockets from southern Lebanon toward northern Israel up until today cheap rockets have been the balancing factor against the Israeli Air Force. But in the recent hostilities, as Iron Dome air defense system gets more and more credits for shutting down hostile rockets, this equation is starting to unravel.
According to the Isreal Defense Forces only 86 percent of civil-life threatening rockets have intercepted by Iron Dome, but on the other hand, less than 0.1 percent of Palestinian rockets have scored any casualties or substantial material damage during first three weeks of Operation “Protective Edge” (based on my own media tracking of the events). This number does not indicate a victory for the classic strategic weapon of Mughawama (resistance).
Some may argue that psychological and economic effects of Palestinian rockets have remained intact. They succeed to considerably reduce air traffic over Tel Aviv, partially affected by MH17 disaster in Ukraine, and induce terror in Israel citizens. But the fact is, Iron Dome has at least provided a psychological cover for Israeli population and individual rocket impacts in populated areas, mostly hitting deserted streets and parking lots, haven’t been able to crack that cover.
The Palestinian militia understood this changing factor and started to use alternate strategic weapons in the early days of the conflict. They sent suicidal combat teams to Israel through underground tunnels. When the first wave of attack teams was intercepted by Israeli soldiers, Hamas, particularly deployed primitive combat drones to retain the terror balance.
Drones didn’t work out so well, the majority of them were intercepted by Patriot batteries. But infiltration teams after a few foiled attempts succeed in intercepting a liaison vehicle and terrorizing coastal cities. The enemy in the north, Hezbollah, looks at these developments in distress. Hezbollah possesses a more sophisticated and more diverse arsenal than the besieged Gaza militants to replace exploited strategic means, but it has more difficult challenges too.
Hezbollah has cruise missiles and combat/suicidal drones, but experience taught them that no weapon is more reliable than old-fashion rockets. Israel has its air force and air defense to tackle incoming cruise missiles and Hezbollah’s first experience in drone-terror attack on Tel Aviv on August 3rd 2006 was a complete failure. Fore drones, each packed with 30kg of explosive, never reached their targets. Israeli Air Force claimed two kills, but details of the confrontation remain a mystery until today (see also Yochi Dreazen, “The Next Arab-Israeli War Will Be Fought with Drones“, The New Republic, 26.03.2014).
On the other hand Hezbollah’s experience with rockets was a success in the 2006 war. Hezbollah maintained a steady stream of nearly 130 rockets per day organized in 15-16 barrages each with 8-9 rockets plus individual lunches. From almost 4,000 rockets, fired by Hezbollah 900 hit Israel, causing 54 casualties and 250 seriously wounded (cf.: Andrew F. Krepinevich, “7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century“, New York: Bantam Dell, 2009, p. 129-30).
Comparing Lebanon’s statistics to Gaza 2014, with 2,100 rockets fired so far, 250 intercepted by Iron Dome and two rockets scoring casualties, Hezbollah eight years ago appeared nearly twice more accurate than Palestinians today. But the Lebanese militia has a different challenge; they must aim deeper into Israel to achieve strategic weight. While better aiming of massive rocket torrents could overwhelm Iron Dome system, Hezbollah does not have many medium- or long-range rockets to begin with. In fact, less than 10 percent of Hezbollah’s arsenal were medium to long range rockets manufactured mainly by Syria or China in the battle of 2006.
This does not look good for the Lebanese militia, in case of any major confrontation with Israel, they wouldn’t have any strategic military leverage against Israel. Furthermore, for years, Hezbollah has used the rocket-terror equation as a preventive measure against the assassination of its high-ranking officials. A torrent of rockets answered the assassination of its former secretary general, Sayyed Abbas Mousavi, and in later cases, surgical attacks were a common threat in case of high-ranking commanders being targeted by Israel. With outstanding performance of the Iron Dome system, this strategic respond capability is gone too.
But if one thing has been learnt from the history of Hezbollah operation is, as described by Uzi Robin, its ingenuity in asymmetric warfare. Unlike Hamas, which have perished its strategic ally by fighting against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Hezbollah still has government support from Iran and Syria to receive next generation weaponry to confront Israel’s growing capabilities.
The main weapon acquisition from Hezbollah in recent years was guided rockets. Maj Gen. Yari Golan, commander of the Israeli Northern Command confirmed the transfer of precision weapons to Hezbollah through Syria (“Hezbollah denies it got Syria chemical arms“, Al Jazeera, 24.09.2013). As mentioned before, even precise targeting would not solve the problem as Hezbollah has a limited number of medium range rockets to overwhelm the Israeli air defense – but deception may work well.
The Iron Dome is designed around the prediction of the hostile projectile impact zone. Israeli defense is highly sensitive to the concept of “letting the dumb rocket go” as insisting on intercepting each rocket would have serious economic backlashes and threaten strategic missile depots to maintain the defense in long periods of time. In this context guided rockets can perform terminal maneuvres to deceive Israeli defense. A rocket, which is intentionally aimed at an open ground, and being neglected by Iron Dome, can change its course toward a valuable target in terminal stage, when it’s already to late to initiate an interception procedure.
- The Nazeat missile family was the first to receive a such upgrades. Comparing to known guided artillery rockets Nazeat uses a unique control method. Instead of usual control fins, Nazeat uses Vernier nozzles, small rockets, to steer. Contrary to control fins, control nozzles doesn’t produce additional drag thus do not reduce rocket’s range. Steering rockets also have a better performance at high altitude correction, but on the down side, they have a limited steering capability and are less accurate.
- The Hurmoz missile family is the guided versions of the Zelzal rockets series. Comparing to the Nazeat family with a range of 130-160km and a 230kg warhead, the Zelzal family provides longer hand and heavier warhead with 200-250km and 600kg respectively. The guided Zelzal family, i.e. Hurmoz, is meant to perform sophisticated strikes. It carries various warheads and guidance packages to deal with specialized targets, including a passive radar homing guidance system. The Hurmoz also carries two types of cluster warheads, one with 19 dumb bomblets, each weighting around 30kg, the other with three re-entry vehicles capable of targeting diverse targets. The original Zelzal rockets series has a considerable operational history against Israel. At least two rockets were fired toward Haifa in 2006: one dis-integrated in the air and one stroke open area. In both cases, Israeli officials claimed the Patriot battery stationed in Haifa was not able to engage with the incoming targets as they were outside Patriot’s engagement envelope.
- The 333mm Fajr-5 rocket also has a guided version. During various conflicts through 2006 until Operation “Protective Edge” in 2014, Fajr-5 have been the main weapon to hit deep targets inside Israel including Haifa in 2006 and Tel Aviv in 2012 conflicts. There is no official designation for the guided Fajr-5. The rocket uses fins for steering toward target and an enhanced rocket engine to compensate the reduction of range due to the drag of the control surfaces. While the original Fajr-4 rocket has a minimum range of 32km and a maximum range of 75km, a radical version also have been introduced which can reach as far as 170km with the aid of an auxiliary booster.
- Although guided versions of 122mm Grad rockets also have been offered by Russian defense companies, there is no evidence of any guided rockets smaller than Fajr-5 being in service, in Iran, Syria or Lebanon. But lately footage revealed from testing air to ground precision guided munitions in surface-to-surface modes have prompted the possibility of existence of tactical guided ammunition in Iran’s (and its allies) arsenal.
- One considerable weapon is the Bina missile. It is a combination of AGM-65 Maverick engine and warhead with a GBU-10/12 laser guidance. An AGM-65-strengthed strike is quite enough to target a small house used as a field command post or take out any armored vehicle even strike light bridges. Bina is believed to range 10 to 12 km in surface-to-surface mode.
Back in 2006, Hezbollah commanders could only choose between cities now they can choose targets and mission types. They can choose to pressure ground troops with CAS-type strikes, suppress artillery or air bases in critical first hours of the battle. But Hezbollah’s new weapons represent, regarding possible scenarios, not the faith of future battle in Lebanon.
New weapons represent new challenges. Guided weapons are more sensitive to environmental environment they have less storage life and should be inspected routinely. To get the most out of the weapons, new rockets have to be combined with old unguided rockets, drones and cruise missiles. These employment tactics have to be carefully rehearsed and optimized though time. Guidance is a serious challenge too. Iranians use a domestic land based positioning system called “Hoda“, which provides centimetric precision up to 200km outside Iran’s border. Hezbollah can’t use such system since stationary signal sources would be destroyed by the Israeli Air Force in the first hours of any conflict. Using inertial navigation also means the necessity of precise topological maps and the reduction of launchers mobility.
Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria only adds to the problems. The group has been fighting a completely different battle for the past two years than it is expected with Israel in Lebanon. The diversity between fighting methods in these two battlefields most certainly would affect training and preparation of Hezbollah’s elite units to fight against Israel. Assassination of critical individuals in Hezbollah’s weapon program, including Brig. Gen. Hessam Khoshnevis from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods force and Hesan Al Laqqis, chief of Hezbollah’s weapon program, probably contributed to the lack of readiness of Hezbollah’s weapons.
Even with so much serious challenge, the lowest case scenario is Hezbollah is using guided rockets only to increase precision of attacks while still sustaining attrition against Iron Dome. 10 percent of all rockets fired toward Israel, with an unlikely presumption that total launch numbers would remain the same, are half of the rockets that hit Israel in the 2006 war. But this time rockets wouldn’t hit deserted streets and parking lots. Even fewer hits on power plants, electricity distribution posts, gas stations etc. would have a more sensible impact on Israeli’s civilian life. For Hezbollah, guided rockets would preserve balance even if cruise missiles and drones wouldn’t change the battle scene. Hezbollah can even restore its, partially lost, preventive and surgical retaliatory capabilities. These capabilities will form a new balance of power rather than preserving the old equations.
Uzi Rubin, “The Rocket Campaign against Israel during the 2006 Lebanon War“, Mideast Security and Policy Studies No. 71, June 2007.
Jassem Al Salami, “Iran’s Flying Tanks in Iraq“, War is Boring, 12.07.2014.