With Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization possessing missiles with sufficient range to reach targets deep inside Israel, the priority now is to improve accuracy, a development which is causing serious alarm in Israel and could draw the bitter enemies closer to confrontation, writes Nicholas Blanford

The latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas and other Palestinian groups in Gaza was notable for the intensity of the rocket barrages over the two-day period which appears to have been a deliberate attempt to put Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system to the test.

In the two days before a ceasefire was reached Tuesday evening, Palestinian groups fired more than 460 mortar rounds and rockets, most of them short-range variants, at settlement communities adjacent to the Gaza border. On at least two occasions, according to Israeli reports, Hamas fired unusually large numbers of rockets in a single barrage and concentrated them on a relatively small geographical area. The assessment of the Israeli military is that Hamas was attempting to overwhelm the Iron Dome system by swarming rockets against targets, according to Israeli media reports.

Israel fields three tiers of missile defense. The Iron Dome copes with short-range projectiles such as mortar rounds and 122mm Grads, David’s Sling intercepts medium-range rockets, such as Iran’s Fateh-110 family, and the Arrow system is reserved for longer-range ballistic missiles such as Scuds.

Fire and smoke rise following Israeli air strikes targeting the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah on November 12, 2018 (Said Khatib/AFP)

When a rocket is fired toward Israel, the Iron Dome’s radar detects the launch and the system automatically computes the rocket’s trajectory and impact location. If the rocket is heading for open, unpopulated ground, it is generally left alone, but if it is heading for urban or industrial areas, an interceptor missile is launched to destroy the rocket in flight. This selective method partly mitigates against the swarming tactic as not all the incoming rockets require interception. It also helps lower the huge financial costs that would be incurred if sufficient Iron Dome batteries and interceptor missiles were deployed to enable every inbound rocket to be targeted.

According to Israel’s Ynet news portal, the Iron Dome batteries intercepted around 120 rockets headed from Gaza toward populated areas while another 20 hit homes, farmland and roads, killing one person and wounding dozens of others.

A key element to Hamas’ swarming tactic is the accuracy of its rockets. The more accurate the rocket, the higher the chance that it will hit its intended target – a settlement, an industrial zone, infrastructure or military facilities. Greater accuracy increases the burden on each Iron Dome unit as it will have to cope with a higher percentage of potentially deadly or damaging inbound rockets compared to stray projectiles which can be ignored.

This is in part why Hezbollah and Iran have invested heavily in recent years in improving the accuracy of missiles, particularly the longer-range solid-fueled varieties such as the Fateh-110.

A picture taken by the Iranian Defence Ministry and released on August 25, 2010, allegedly shows the test firing of Iran’s surface-to-surface Fateh 110 missile (valid Reza Alaei/Iranian Defence Ministry/AFP)

In 2009, the UK-based Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that Hezbollah had acquired the M600, a Syrian version of the Fateh-110 which carries a 500-kilogram warhead for a distance of 250 kilometers. Since then Iran has unveiled several improved versions of the Fateh-110, including the Fateh 313 which was first deployed in 2015 and has a reported range of 500 kilometers and the Zolfagher which was unveiled in 2016 and has a range of 700 kilometers. The latter missile was used by Iran in June 2017 when six were launched from western Iran to strike Islamic State targets in eastern Syria. In August, Iran revealed its latest Fateh-110 variant, the Fateh-Mobin which is fitted with an electro-optical seeker on the missile’s nose giving it “pinpoint accuracy,” according to Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami.

In 2014, a top Iranian general reportedly admitted that Fateh-110 missiles had been delivered to “Lebanese and Palestinian resistance groups” although it was unclear which versions. But even with the shorter-range Fateh-110s, Hezbollah could launch them from positions in the northern Bekaa Valley and strike targets across Israel’s main metropolitan areas in the center of the country, including Tel Aviv.

“In addition to extending the range of the Fateh-110 family of missiles, the focus in recent years has been on improving the accuracy of new missiles and to upgrade some existing systems from unguided to guided”

In addition to extending the range of the Fateh-110 family of missiles, the focus in recent years has been on improving the accuracy of new missiles and to upgrade some existing systems from unguided to guided. In 2009, the Fateh-110 was thought capable of landing within 500 meters of its target. Such a radius made it a potential threat to large facilities, Ben Gurion International airport, seaports and military bases for example but offered no guarantee of striking smaller targets such as buildings. However, according to Western intelligence sources, Hezbollah is in the process of improving the accuracy of its arsenal of second-generation Fateh-110 missiles to a radius of within 10 meters and extending their range from 250 kilometers to 300 kilometers. This new-found accuracy could place facilities such as Israel’s defense ministry in Tel Aviv at serious risk of receiving a direct hit.

Additionally, Hezbollah’s Syrian-manufactured unguided M302 artillery rockets are being fitted with inertial guidance systems that will allow them also to strike targets within a radius of 10 meters. The M302, dubbed Khaiber-1 by Hezbollah, is also having its range extended from around 100 kilometers to 200 kilometers, the sources said. The standard M302, of which several were fired into Israel in the 2006 war, carries a 175-kilogram warhead, although the newer versions may carry a lighter payload to allow for the increased range. The M302 is intended to be fired in volleys from a multi-tubed launcher fitted on the back of a truck. The new accuracy of the weapon, its extended range and its multiple launch pattern would pose a serious challenge for the Iron Dome and its bigger brother, David’s Sling, if a barrage was launched at, for example, the Israeli army’s northern command headquarters on the outskirts of Safad.

This focus on accuracy has caused alarm in Israel for several years. In March 2014, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned that in five years, organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas would have missiles so precise that they could “choose which building in Israel to hit”. That prediction appears to be becoming a reality.

“This focus on accuracy has caused alarm in Israel for several years”

Since January 2013, Israel has struck multiple times at targets in Syria, most of them caches of advanced weaponry destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. But the Israelis have also struck facilities where missiles are constructed and improved, such as the sprawling Masyaf complex in Hama province which has been hit at least twice. Iran is believed to be heavily involved in the Syrian missile improvement projects, providing components and explosives for warheads, according to Jane’s Defence Weekly. Last year, reports emerged that Iran is building a large missile factory in a valley some 15 kilometers east of Banias in Syria. Google Earth imagery dating from November 2016 shows extensive construction activity in the valley and numerous bunker-like structures protected by earth berms commonly found in Syrian army munitions facilities.

In September, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, mocked Israeli efforts to curb his party’s acquisition of accurate missiles.

“They [the Israelis] have been working hard to cut off the road and prevent us from possessing precision missiles,” he said. “I say whatever you do to cut off the road on us, it’s all over. We are now in possession of precision missiles that if used in any future war you cannot expect what your fate will be.”

The iron dome defense system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets is pictured here in the southern Israeli town of Sderot on November 12, 2018 (Jack Guez/AFP)

In the past 18 months, Israel has accused Hezbollah of constructing factories in Lebanon for the manufacture, assembly or upgrading of missiles. Initial reports placed the locations as near Hermel in the northern Bekaa Valley and near Sarafand on the coast in south Lebanon. In September, during a speech at the United Nations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu displayed satellite images of the area around Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut marked with what he said were the locations of three Hezbollah missile facilities. One of the facilities was the site of the Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Ahed football ground. A second was a pair of warehouses in an industrial complex close to the airport perimeter. The third was a small dock just north of the Ouzai fishermen’s harbor. Netanyahu said the “secret sites” were built to “convert inaccurate projectiles into precision-guided missiles”.

“So I have a message for Hezbollah today,” Netanyahu said. “Israel knows what you’re doing. Israel knows where you are doing it. And Israel will not let you get away with it.”

Whether missiles are stored or upgraded at these three facilities is unclear. The small dock in Ouzai is known locally as a Hezbollah facility and was the launch site of a cruise missile attack against an Israeli naval vessel in the 2006 war. Israel has followed up on Netanyahu’s public pronouncement with a reported series of warnings conveyed by foreign diplomats visiting Beirut who have told the Lebanese government that if the alleged missile facilities are not closed down, they could be attacked by the Israelis. The response of the Lebanese government has been to deny the presence of Hezbollah missile sites, although there is little it can do even if the locations exist.

But will Israel follow through on its apparent threat to destroy the missile facilities in Lebanon? The current “rules of the game” allow Israel to target sites linked to Hezbollah and Iran in Syria without a real risk of retaliation but not to hit targets in Lebanon. These rules have been shaped by a number of incidents since the 2006 war and are understood by both sides.

In December 2013, Hassan Lakkis, the head of Hezbollah’s research and development program, was shot dead in his car in Hadath south of Beirut. Israel was blamed for the assassination and four days later an improvised explosive device was detonated against an Israeli military jeep near Majdal Shams in the northern Golan Heights. The incident was unclaimed and went largely overlooked at first. Three months later in February 2014, the Israelis staged an air strike against a Hezbollah facility near Janta in the eastern Bekaa Valley, the first such attack by Israel since the 2006 war. Hezbollah vowed to retaliate and there followed over the next three weeks a number of unclaimed attacks and attempted attacks against Israeli military targets, again, all emanating from areas of the northern Golan where Hezbollah had a presence. The one exception was a roadside bomb ambush in the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms district, the first since before the 2006 war. It initially went unclaimed although Nasrallah admitted a month later that Hezbollah had carried it out. The flurry of attacks ended with the wounding of four Israeli soldiers in an IED ambush near Majdal Shams, mirroring the operation that followed Lakkis’ assassination three months earlier.

“The acquisition of accurate guided missiles in Hezbollah’s arsenal appears to be testing Israel’s discretion and the current ‘rules’”

A pattern of retaliation had been set. There have been three further retaliatory operations in the Shebaa Farms since March 2014, all of them in response to deaths of Hezbollah cadres caused by Israel.

Although Israel has struck multiple targets in Syria since February 2014, it has refrained from any further air strikes into Lebanon, knowing that it will elicit a response that would run the potential risk of escalating out of control. But the acquisition of accurate guided missiles in Hezbollah’s arsenal appears to be testing Israel’s discretion and the current “rules”.

Nasrallah referred to the Israeli threats in a speech on November 10, noting that Israel has nuclear weapons, the strongest air force in the region and a large army but it “cannot bear the amount of missiles present in Lebanon.”

“Why? Because they hinder and prevent the Israeli enemy from acting as it pleases,” he said. He then warned that “we will inevitably respond to any attack on Lebanon, any airstrike on Lebanon, any bombing on Lebanon. It will not be accepted that the enemy return to violate Lebanon as it did in the past decades”.

If Israel does decide it has no choice but to break the “rules” and attack the alleged missiles sites in Lebanon, then Netanyahu will have to accept and prepare for the fact that the action could lead to a highly destructive war as Hezbollah will have no choice but to retaliate. While Hezbollah is likely to tailor the scale of its retaliation to the scale of the assault by Israel, such incidents always run the risk of escalating out of control, potentially into a war that both sides are bracing for but neither side currently seeks.

The game of brinkmanship between these old enemies continues.

Nicholas Blanford is a veteran Beirut-based correspondent and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center of International Security at the Atlantic Council