Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Weapons Of Mass Destruction

President Michel Sleiman has called for a dialogue over a national defense strategy, reviving the ongoing debate over how to incorporate Hezbollah’s weapons into the Lebanese Armed Forces. In his turn, the party’s secretary-general, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, has reiterated that Hezbollah’s arsenal provides a deterrence against Israel. In fact, Hezbollah’s weapons are not only ineffective as a deterrent; they pose a clear and present danger to Lebanon.

Some in the March 14 coalition have accepted Nasrallah’s premise when demanding that Hezbollah’s weapons be incorporated into the state. The reality, however, is that Hezbollah’s assets fall short of providing any added value to Lebanon in several critical domains.

Though the 2006 war was hailed as a divine victory by Hezbollah, it exposed the party’s lack of preparedness when it came to civil defense, the handling of refugees and the evacuation and treatment of massive numbers of casualties. In fact this task fell on Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government, which was responsible for clearing the rubble away from Beirut’s devastated southern suburbs, and for much of the reconstruction. Two huge mounds of debris near the airport still stand as silent testimony to the divine victory.

In peace time, Hezbollah cannot contribute to border control and search and rescue operations, and it is unable to provide logistical support to Lebanon’s armed forces. Moreover, the party has nothing to offer in terms of maritime surveillance in territorial waters. The latest request from the Defense Ministry for an additional $1.6 billion aims to expand mainly logistical and maritime capabilities.

The question then remains whether Hezbollah’s firepower offers any real deterrence capability. The anti-aircraft defenses that the party is believed to have, namely SA24 shoulder-held missiles as well the mobile but outdated SA8 low- to medium-anti-aircraft missiles, can be dismissed as ineffective against the advanced electronic countermeasures of the Israeli air force. As an illustration, when the Israelis attacked a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, Syrian air defenses, which are far more advanced than Hezbollah’s, did not react.

Hezbollah’s antitank weapon systems were highly effective against Israeli armor during the summer war of 2006. However, one could argue that this success was partly due to faulty tactics by Israel, even a gross underestimation by the Israelis of the effectiveness of weapon systems such as the Russian AT-14 Kornett laser-guided missile by well-trained and motivated combatants. But the efficacy of such anti-tank weapon systems in a future conflict may well be in doubt. The Israelis have developed and successfully tested an anti anti-tank weapon system in the Gaza Strip, one that has been able to intercept missiles and rocket-propelled grenades in an effective way.

And what of Hezbollah’s anti-ship capabilities? During the 2006 war, the party crippled an Israeli Hanit Saar5 Corvette using a Chinese C802 missile. However, this occurred because the ship’s close-in weapons system had been turned off. The Israeli navy continued to operate with impunity during the remainder of the conflict. It is very unlikely that the subsonic C802 can replicate that success.

It is Hezbollah’s rocket and missile force, numbering in the tens of thousands, that constitutes the bulk of the party’s firepower. While a smaller number of medium- and long-range missiles such as the Fajr-5, Fateh-110, and Scud variants are stationed north of the Litani River, the short-range Katyusha 122mm and others are south of the river, many in fixed positions in close proximity to civilian areas.

The short-range rockets continued to be launched throughout the 2006 war, with 250 fired on the last day. Though more than 4,000 such missiles were fired, less than 500 actually hit vital targets. Even though the small-sized warheads caused little overall damage, Israeli analysts agree that Israel’s inability to defend against them represented one of the prime failures of the war.

Hezbollah, in turn, considered it a triumph, and rightly so, that it was able to keep firing until the very end, defying Israel’s massive artillery and aerial bombardment. However, against this we must examine the fate of the party’s medium- and long-range missiles. Many were destroyed on the ground early in the war. Since then, Israel’s missile defense systems have significantly improved, with the introduction of the latest generation of Patriot PAC3 and Arrow II missile systems.

Israel’s unmanned aerial vehicle surveillance capability, as well as its manned aircraft capability and improved anti-missile defenses, could minimize Hezbollah’s long-range missile threat. In fact, Israeli analysts today seem more concerned with Hezbollah’s short-range rocket threat.

Even though anti-missile systems such as the Iron Dome have been effective in Gaza, it is unlikely that such a system could neutralize volleys of hundreds of short-range rockets. That is why Israeli strategists have argued that a rapid and massive Israeli invasion of areas south of the Litani would be needed to end the short-range rocket threat, thereby avoiding repeating the failures of 2006. This would inevitably lead to extensive casualties and devastation of villages, not to mention the destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure, which Israel has declared a legitimate target should hostilities arise.

Hezbollah is well aware of this, and has indicated through intermediaries that it would not initiate hostilities along the southern border. Active resistance for the liberation of Lebanese territory is a thing of the past. However, a cataclysmic scenario may be triggered by Iran, Hezbollah’s patron. As far as Iran is concerned, its regional interests and considerations take precedence over Lebanese concerns.
Hezbollah’s thousands of short-range rockets do not have a significant military value. Instead, they constitute an excuse and an instigation for a destructive Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Iran’s control of Hezbollah’s arsenal magnifies the danger. Hezbollah has no credible means of defending Lebanon’s infrastructure, territorial waters or airspace. The deterrence value of the party’s weapon systems is vastly overrated, exposing Lebanon to massive retaliation. The current situation presents a disaster in the waiting.

Basem Shabb is a Lebanese parliamentarian and a member of the parliamentary committee on defense. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 17, 2012, on page 7.
Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Opinion/Commentary/2012/Aug-17/184903-weapons-of-mass-self-destruction.ashx#ixzz24rZN7Y5w
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)

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