Defense Update - News Analysis by David Eshel

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Hezbollah's Strategic Rocket Arsenal Threatens Israels Security
"We are sitting on a powder keg," said Major General Benny Gantz, the commander of Israel's Northern Front," This is a highly sensitive situation and the entire region can go up in flames at the strike of a single match" the general warned, during a recent media visit to the Lebanese border fence.

Nearly three years ago, the IDF withdrew its forces from the so-called Security Zone in south Lebanon, after fighting a two decade long bloody guerilla war against the Iranian-backed Shi'ite Hezbollah.
On the Israeli side of the 120km border, Israel has created a line of fortified outposts guarded by a sophisticated anti-infiltration fence, using the latest technology in sensors, electronic surveillance and reconnaissance drones to monitor all hostile movements, day and night.

However, Hezbollah, who regarded the Israeli withrawal as its culminating victory, has not remained idle on its laurels.

First, having established its own Hezbollahland a territory in south Lebanon, over which it has complete control, Hezbollah guerillas created a strong base for its potential military operations against Israel. "Hezbollahland" exercises virtual ex-territorial conditions beyond the control of the central administration in Beirut, or even Damascus, not to speak of UNIFIL, which is keeping a very low profile in all its so-called peacekeeping activities.

Second, Hezbollah has built an impressive military capability, including a strategic threat through acquisition of, what Israeli intelligence estimates, a lethal arsenal of several thousand short -and medium-range rockets, ranging from the immediate border region to the strategic heartland in Haifa Bay, thus becoming a serious element to be reckoned with, within the regional powerplay.

The Hezbollah's Strategic Rocket Arsenal Threat
According to latest Intelligence estimates, most of Hezbollah's arsenal consists of the elderly type 107mm( 8000m range), BM-21 122mm, (20km range) "Katyusha" rockets, and 120mm mortars, ranging 8-9000m, all of which place some 250,000 Israeli citizens and several major east-west traffic lanes, within effective range of hostile fire in a limited border war. Should Hezbollah decide to escalate the conflict through the use of longer range rockets, then several hundred 240mm Fajr-3, (range 40km )and Fajr-5, (range 72km), rockets could threaten about a third of Israel's population and important strategic targets in the Haifa Bay region. Israeli intelligence experts have expressed concern, that part of these rockets could mount chemical warheads. Latest reports, indicate shipments of Syrian modified ex-Soviet BM-27 220mm rockets from Syrian depots, alas ranging only 20-29km (instead of the original Russian 40+km) but fire a 360kg warhead, compared to the Fajr 200kg and BM-21 20kg warhead.

Recent reports also mention deployment of Iranian Zelzal-2 artillery rockets in the Lebanese Beka'a valley, which is under full Syrian military control and forms the logistic and training base of Hezbollah. The Zelzal-2 carries a 600kg warhead to an estimated range of 210km (?) these rockets, as well as the majority of the Iranian Fajr are estimated to be still under control by Iranian Revolutionary Corps (IRGC) commanders, which are located in the Lebanese Beka'a, acting as instructors for Hezbollah. There may well be a co-ordinated supervision between Syrian and Iranian inspectors for operational employment for the longer range rocket arsenal, so that accidental firing by Hezbollah can be averted. How effective these supervisions can be in a rapidly developing emergency situation is doubtful.

An example, as to what could occur through lack of effective control and expert supervision can serve the powerful blast that reverberated accross eastern Lebanon on December 29, 2002. The Lebanese authorities tried to keep a low profileon this embararassing incident, but the blast, which could be heard for many miles, sent ambulances rushing to the scene, which Hezbollah security immediately cordoned off tightly. The mystery remained shrouded in top secrecy, but rumours spread, that the huge explosion took place at Janta training camp, the main facility, in which the IRGC instructors under Brigadier Ali Reza Tamizr train Hezbollah in medium-range rockets. Israeli intelligence were investigating reports, that the explosion occured while testing a newly arrived experimental rocket, carrying a 1000kg (?) warhead.

Hezbollah has not only become a powerful player in regional affairs, but enjoys much more independence, since the demise of Syria's Hafez Assad, who had contained its activities to a localised border struggle with Israel, but carefully foiled any attempts by Hezbollah ( or its Iranian mentor) to extend the conflict into a strategic threat.

According to Dr Eyal Zisser, a leading Israeli scholar on the Arab subjects, "An entity is taking shape within Lebanon's ( southern territories) that has the military power of a mini-state but lacks the conventional retraints of a sovereign state". And Zisser adds "There is a precedent for this-the mini-state created in Lebanon by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in the 1970s- and the tensions it created which led to the 1982 Lebanon War".

Zisser claims that Hezbollah's political rise results from its unprecedented military prestige in the guerilla war against the Israel, which brought its charismatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah to regard himself as "hero on a divine mission" boasting that " Israel, which has nuclear power and the strongest air force in the region, but is weaker than a spider's web".

One of the reasons for Nasrallah's swashbuckling rethoric seems to be that under his leadership, Hezbollah has found a territorial niche, after Israel's withdrawal, which no one is eager to control, certainly not the Lebanese Army, which has sofar refused to move south in order to take control of the UN demarkated "Blue Border Line" to fulfil UN Resolution 425 according to which Israel withdrew its forces in May 2000.

Another factor, which might be even more dangerous, is the brinkmanship game exercised by Hafez Assad's neophyte successor, his younger son Bashar, whom Nasrallah shrewdly took under his wings for, what Bashar believed, would strengthen Syria's interest.

Israeli intelligence assessments warn that Iran and Syria might seek to foment more tension along Israel's Lebanese border to complicate American plans to invade Saddam Hussein's regime and that the huge build-up of rocket potential in hands of Hezbollah could tempt these radical elements to expand operations into Israeli territory once the timing is right.

Potential Israeli Responses Countering Hezbollah Threat
The Israeli defence community faces a tremendous challenge in the coming weeks. While hoping to remain passive in the forthcoming American attack on its arch-enemy Saddam Hussein, as long as its own territory will not be directly attacked, the new Sharon government, with its right-wing majority will hardly be able to refrain from retaliating with its full military power, if Hezbollah launches rockets on Israeli targets.

Professor Shmuel Sandler of the BESA center for Strategic Studies in Israel, claimed recently, that "the deterrent capability-which for decades helped Israel to stave off the hostile intentions of an Arab world, whose population is many times its own-has been battered by two decades in which Israel failed to win decisively on any front". His list mentions- in addition to non-response to Saddam Hussein's Scuds in 1991-a unilateral pull-out of Lebanon in 2000 and the slow bleed of the current conflict with the Palestinians.

Thus, Israel's new defence minister, Shaul Mofaz warned last December that " If Hezbollah opens a second front against Israel by using long-range rockets, we won't have much choice but to retaliate with all our might". Lt General Moshe Ya'alon, the new IDF Chief of Staff rendered a stern warning last August, that " attacks by Hezbollah along Israel's northern border could cause further regional instability", adding that " the potential that exists today in Lebanon is far graver than it was in the period when we were in the security zone. Hezbollah, together with Syria and Iran has created a strategic threat to the north of Israel". replying as to how tangible this treat was to Israel, the general responded that " if Hezbollah's potential is unleashed against us, it is possible that our response will, in fact, have to have the effect of enhancing Israel's deterrent capability. If it is unleashed and our reponse is inadequate, it will hurt us. So, if the threat materialised, we will have to exact a heavy price from those who are reponsible for its development". Asked whom he meant, Ya'alon mentioned frankly Syria and Iran in Lebanon. The general was even more specific when asked how Israel's deterrence could be enhanced during this critical period: " We have to confront our enemies with a price that will make them realise that an aggressive potential will not be worthwhile, not for them, nor anyone who even considers using such weapons against Israel in the future. We have to excert such a price that will make everyone in the region understand that we mean business. All told, we have a crushing answer to Hezbollah and if the Syrians try to take us in the field, we have a devastating plan to such a contingency- they know it and this is what deters them".

Although no one in the Israeli defence community will go any further elaborating Ya'alon's lecture, there are a few operational alternatives, which could serve as potential scenarios in a future crisis management:

1. Defensive Oriented Response to Limited Scale attacks

Should the cross-border war on Israel's northern frontier escalate into renewed rocket attacks on civilian targets, then the IDF will retaliate. Past experience has demonstrated there is no absolute effective counteraction against single mortars or rockets firing sporadically from widely separated locations. On rare occasions, the AN/TPQ-37 mortar locating radar operated by the IDF was able to pinpoint launchers and call in air strikes, directed by cruising unarmed aerial vehicles (UAVs). Normally, though, the perpetrators were able to evade attack.

In high versus low-tech anti-guerrilla warfare, the low-tech guerrilla usually has a marked advantage. Successful counterlaunch activities depend entirely on real-time intelligence and pinpointing targets before actual launching. The IDF has gained valuable experience using long-range electronic surveillance equipment including advanced use of UAVs with ultra-rapid data links to launch immediate air or artillery strikes.

Israeli and US experts are encouraged by the operational tests of the Tactical High Energy Laser, which has undergone successful firing tests at the White Sands missile test range in New Mexico. Whether it will perform adequately under the combat conditions along Israel's northern region remains doubtful. To become completely operational the system must become fully mobile and its power supply scaled down in size and proportion. It will also have to overcome some climatic disturbances, such as fog, haze and low cloud, frequent in the region.

It is highly doubtful that Israel will continue to maintain defensive oriented activities, after having sofar restrained its responses, to meet American strategic interest, against repeated provocations by Hezbollah. Intelligence sources estimate that this restraint was perceived as weakness and should no longer be considered if further provocations occur , even when involving escalating potential.

Indeed, unidentified IDF commanders in various branches have spoken in favour of a military initiative to be conducted in tandem with the American led campaign in Iraq, designed to eradicate the growing strategic threat posed by the Hezbollah weapons arsenal building along its border. In their view, Israel cannot tolerate a situation in which its strategic assets are constantly exposed to the threat of mass rocket attacks, when the "fingers on the trigger" belong to irresponsible fundamentalist radicals like Hassan Nasrallah and disciples of the late Ayatolla Khomeini".

Offensive Oriented Responses
According to professional analysts the IDF has several options to retaliate by force, without risking too much international condemnation, provided, that the scale of response will be balanced to the scale of provoked attack.

a. Limited Scale Operations

According to IDF officers, a concentrated operation focused on Hezbollah will become necessary, but not as repeat performance of Operation Accountability 1993 or Operation Grapes of Wrath 1996, which proved counter productive and politically damaging to Israel and in fact strengthened Hezbollah's determination.

Any future operations mounted in Lebanon should eliminate once and for all the military grip of the Iranian backed guerilla force in south Lebanon and finally implement the final clause in the 1989 Taif Agreement which calls for the disarming of all Lebanese armed militias, restoring full Lebanese sovereignty to the south and deployement of the Lebanese Army to the border with Israel, according to UN resolution 425.
Military experts estimate, that lashing out effectively against the present Hezbollah infrastructure will not be a walk in the park. While the overwhelming firepower, combining air, ground and offshore naval forces into a a well orchestrated offensive will no doubt reach its objectives, the price may well be significant. For example, Hezbollah, assisted by expert Iranian Revolutionary Guard instructors, have fortified their positions extensively. The guerillas constructed underground bunkers for weapons depots, which could withstand Israeli air strikes. Israeli intelligence has identified Hezbollah activity in restoring the abandoned WW2 constructed railway tunnel built from Ras el Naqura on the coastline. Hezbollah also deployed air defence artillery in fortified positions, and some surface-to-air missiles are also suspected to be in place.

On the other hand, the Fajr-3/5 is mounted on a 6x6 truck chassis, which are easier to detect, than the single tube Grad launchers, which evaded even the best IDF surveillance.

Limited scale operations have not solved any problems in the Middle East. One can mention the 1978 Operation Litani, which purpose was to eliminate PLO military infrastructure in the border region and create a buffer zone manned by Israeli trained and financed south Lebanese Christian militia. Although the SLA was completely loyal, this did not prevent the 1982 Lebanon War to finally elminate the PLO military threat from Israel's border.

b. Large-Scale Military Offensive
The 1982 Lebanon War, codenamed "Peace for Galilee" was Israel's first large- scale military effort to eliminate a growing threat from the PLO, having created its powerful military presence in south Lebanon, virtually controlling the South as a state-within-state, out of reach to the authorities in Beirut ( or the Syrian occupation army since 1976).

No less than seven IDF divisions invaded Lebanon in a three main axis advance and finally captured Beirut, as well as the main Beirut-Damascus highway. The PLO, counting several brigade sized forces was totally destroyed and the survivors evacuated under UN supervision into exile. From a military viewpoint, the operation may have been a success, but it proved a disastrous political backlash, two decades later, as a new threat, Hezbollah, was created, posing a much greater threat to Israel's north, than that of the PLO.
A future large-scale military operation aiming to eliminate the Hezbollah threat must take into consideration the following points:

1) While Hezbollah is counting only a few hundred first-line fighters, they are Lebanese, not Palestinian aliens, and can count therefore on full support from the local population, even if the majority will suffer severely from a war on their territory. Israel's serious mishandling of the SLA refugees will certainly not endear a new incursion of IDF troops into south Lebanon, which in the past was welcomed, not only by the Christians, as the IDF chased the hated PLO warlords out of their villages.

Any invasion into south Lebanon must take into consideration the strong Syrian contingent located in the Beka'a Valley. Any direct confrontation with this force should be prevented, as long as possible, but contingency plans must envisage a Syrian intervention and block these off in time before they can mature into a tactical threat during the operation.

2)There is little doubt, that if sufficient combined forces are employed in the initial strike, all objectives can be taken within hours and with full air superiority no serious encounters should be expected during the first phases of the operation.

The problems will arise during the following stages, if the IDF remains on Lebanese territory. Until sufficiently entrenched and fortified, or remaining fully mobile constantly on the move, the cumbersome IDF, being a regular army depending on vulnerable logistics, will suffer severely from local guerillas.
3) Military analysts estimate, that should the IDF mount a large-scale operation in Lebanon, it will have to be conducted on different tactics than perviously exercised.

First, in order to isolate the battlefield, strong special forces elements would seize dominant, strategic positions in the mountain area, cutting off all routes leading North-South as well as controlling all Syrian movements through the Beka'a Valley.

Second, a combined mechanised/armour operation would link up with these forces, assisted by heliborne special forces seizing vantage points along the advance routes, thus eliminating dangerous ambushes in the winding mountain roads, which had been the main cause for the slow and costly advance in 1982.
Finally once the battlezone would be secured by mobile forces, a large-scale mopping-up operation would be implemented in which part-by-part of the territory would be cordoned off and thouroughly combed, in what the IDF calls "Search and Grab" operations, such as currently gaining substantial success in the anti-terror warfare in the Palestinian territories.

Should the Syrian army in Lebanon decide to intervene on part of a beleagured Hezbollah, which is doubtful, as long as the IDF keeps its distance from Syrian troops, then the main Israeli response would be through its airpower, starting with Syrian objectives inside Lebanon, escalating into strategic objectives inside Syria, should the fighting intensify into an all-out warlike conflict. Under such a situation, Syria could opt for limited strikes on the Golan Heights, for example make a grab for some IDF monitoring stations, or Druze villages on Mount Hermon, but this would expose Syria into an all-out war with Israel, the outcome of which, under the present strategic conditions would be disastrous for Damascus, which is located, since 1974 within artillery range from IDF positions on the Golan Heights.

Syrian forces in Lebanon
There is disagreement over the actual number of Syrian troops deployed in Lebanon. Some Israeli and foreign estimates place their number as high as 35,000 men. However, a much smaller number would be a more realistic estimate as some combat units have withdrawn or relocated to other contingency areas.
The same applies to estimates of combat strength. Much of the Syrian force deployed in Lebanon is performing police-like activities, having little combat value. Substantial numbers are also occupied with internal intelligence and security.

The major combat element is formed around two, or three armoured/ mechanised brigades, deployed in the Bekaa Valley. However, what seems more important is the presence of the bulk of Syrian special forces, which deploys no less than eight identified commando battalions, Syria's elite forces and perhaps the best trained troops in the army. The latter are traditionally deployed around Beirut (although latest intelligence reports have indicated that some of these troops have been redeployed in order to maintain a low profile following the Lebanese student rallies). The reason for such an abundance of special forces in Lebanon relates, it seems, to their loyalty to the Alawite regime and their excellent training and equipment for clandestine anti-guerrilla fighting. The Syrian commandos have also proven their worth against Israeli armour during the 1982 Lebanon war and are highly regarded for their fighting quality and courage by veteran IDF combat soldiers.

Syrian forces presently deployed can be reinforced rapidly, since the distances to major troop concentrations on Syrian territory are within easy access to deployment areas in Lebanon. The Damascus-Beirut highway has considerable traffic movement capacity and is well protected against ground and air attack through a dense deployment of air defences. As most of the Syrian armoured forces are located in peacetime around the vast military complex near Qatana, west of Damascus, any movement towards the Bekaa Valley, using lateral access roads, could avoid the vulnerable Barada river mountain passes leading west from Damascus to the Beirut highway.

Should Israel regard these moves as a strategic threat and decide to attack, the air force can cause carnage and disrupt troop movements almost entirely by blocking major passages en route to delay vital logistical movement. Similar, although somewhat less lucrative opportunities, are also available to the attacker on the north-south access routes leading through the northern Bekaa Valley between the two major Lebanese mountain ranges.