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Israel Tries To Identify Latest Hezbollah Rocket Threat

Israel Tries To Identify Latest Hezbollah Rocket Threat
Aviation Week & Space Technology
08/07/2006, page 28

Robert Wall

David A. Fulghum

Douglas Barrie

Israel continues to attack Hezbollah's rocket arsenal, but larger and more destructive threats loom

Israel's ability to sustain prolonged around-the-clock air combat operations is partially due to fielding of sophisticated sensors. But the technology advance has not enabled the Israelis to avoid costly targeting missteps, or to suppress the Hezbollah rocket threat or pinpoint the adversary's weapons supplier.

Hezbollah rocket launchers have been a primary target for the Israeli air force's F-15s, F-16s and bevy of unmanned aircraft, which have all been fitted with electro-optical/infrared sensors to spot and engage those targets. And, while launchers are taken down daily, the rate of Hezbollah operations appears unaffected, and there are signs of potential escalation in the projectiles' lethality and range.

Moreover, information gathered by the airborne sensors is raising as many questions as it answers for military planners, particularly when it comes to identifying the main suppliers of weaponry to Hezbollah.

Israeli air strikes have revealed unusual rocket launcher configurations that can't always be clearly identified. Credit: IDF

For instance, Israeli officials say most of the Hezbollah arms used appear linked to a Syrian supply chain, rather than an Iranian one--although the latter would also have to come through Syria. The strength of the Syrian connection is highlighted by the use of the 220mm. Urugan rockets, says an Israeli official. The weapon was developed by the Soviet Union, and has been exported to Syria.

Launchers seen in Lebanon differ from the Soviet design, with only one layer of four tubes rather than the standard three layers, two with six tubes and one with four. Officials suspect the change was made to accommodate a lighter vehicle.

But Israel isn't always certain where the weapons originated. For instance, while the 302mm. system resembles the Chinese WS-1 mounted on a more modern vehicle, the official says, it doesn't appear to be the Chinese system. Moreover, that configuration has not been seen in Iran, he adds, although the basic WS-1 has been exported there. The launchers feature two layers of three firing tubes each.

So far, four types of surface-to-surface unguided rockets have been identified, with the longest firing covering about 100 km. (62 mi.). This shot occurred from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

In addition to the launchers, the Israeli air force is targeting what it claims to be key elements of Hezbollah's infrastructure. The air force has been using U.S. GPS-guided bombs and possibly laser-guided GBU-28s, along with Israeli systems, likely including the Spice family of electro-optically guided 1,000- and 2000-lb.-class munitions.

One former Israeli air force officer points out most missions are being flown at night. "It's more than 50% and it's due to the technology. In the past, fighters have been restricted at night. In this war, night is not a factor," he says. In fact, night operations are better because the Hezbollah fighters feel protected by the darkness.

Raids have relied heavily on precision weapons, such as the Spice missile family. Credit: Rafael

Meanwhile, military planners also are bracing for Hezbollah to start using more capable weaponry. As of late last week, Israeli officials suggested they had seen no evidence of Hezbollah using either the Fajr-3 or Fajr-5 Iranian-developed rockets. The 240mm.-dia. Fajr-3 has a 40-km. range, while the 333mm. Fajr-5 can span about 75 km.

However, Israeli officials have seen signs the 210-km.-range Zelzal-2 could make a battlefield appearance, which they believe would represent clear Iranian involvement. The weapon had not been fired as of late last week, but Israeli air force pilots reported spotting and destroying at least one launcher. While the Zelzal isn't viewed as highly accurate, the Israeli official says the 600-kg. (1,323-lb.) warhead would be adequate to do significant damage.

Zelzal employment could provide Israel the best chance of an active air defense, however, which is something it doesn't have against the lower-trajectory, shorter-range weapons. The Zelzal-2 flight profile is similar to the shorter-range ballistic missiles Iraq fired during the 2003 war, which were intercepted by Patriot batteries.

ALSO PUZZLING ISRAELI officials is the infrequency of the use of long-range rockets. Designed as rapid-fire, multiple-launch systems, attacks so far have been carried out one shot at a time, even though the launchers are cumbersome to set up. By far the largest number of firings have come using the shorter-range 122mm. Grad-type, both in a basic and extended-range version.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are providing the Israeli forces persistent surveillance with electro-optical/infrared and synthetic aperture radar. "Electro-optical sensors are integrated on the F-15s, F-16s and UAVs and they are the best we've ever had. The video is great. The video from the UAVs is particularly good because they are sitting 10,000-15,000 ft. directly over the target looking straight down with the minimum of atmospheric haze," says the former senior officer.

He notes that Israel, after leading for years in air combat operational capabilities, now is trying to catch up with the networked, around-the-clock pace the U.S. has been refining since 2001.

Limitations remain, and highlight Israel's poor human intelligence in Lebanon, compared to the West Bank and and Gaza Strip. The July 30 attack on a building in Qana that killed dozens of civilians made the targeting problems all too apparent. Late last week, Israeli officials defended the Qana raid, which involved two missiles, the second a dud. They note that 150 rockets were launched from within the village of Qana and insist they were operating with information no civilians were at the site. Israel will review its rules of engagement, the defense ministry says, but with a clear indication it will not rein in pilots' ability to act.

Ground incursions into Hezbollah positions, such as the village of Maroun A-Ras, have also taken placeCredit: IDF

Israel operations have also been aided by the expedited delivery of weapons from the U.S. And while 16 daily passes by U.S. reconnaissance satellites are allowing Washington to keep a close watch on the region, the extent of intelligence-sharing with Israel isn't known.

In the past five years, Israel has been honing its urban combat operations, with unmanned aircraft providing target imagery and building coordinates, allowing missile-firing helicopters to remain outside of the lethal range of man-portable air-defense weapons. Tow missiles have long been a preferred option for Israeli helicopter pilots in urban scenarios, because they view them as more accurate than the Hellfire. Tow missiles also appear to have found favor with Hezbollah--images of a haul of captured weapons show Tow cases, with a 2001 date stenciled on the side of the box.

HEZBOLLAH IS KNOWN to have a variety of shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, although it is not clear how much these are being used in the conflict.

Moreover, Israeli air force officials say they have been employing their full complement of aviation assets, from F-15s and F-16s to Apache and Cobra attack helicopters to CH-53s andUH-60s. In addition to the large number of unmanned aircraft, officials acknowledge the modified King-Air Tzufit reconnaissance aircraft also has been used.