The Story Behind Hezbollah's Arsenal
NEAL CONAN, host:
Hezbollah continues to fire rockets into northern Israel, killing 24 people thus far. The rockets are - come under a variety of names, come in different sizes as well. Some are believed to be manufactured in Iran. Hamas militants in Gaza, on the other hand, have been firing homegrown rockets called Qassams into Israel.
To tell us more about these groups' stockpiles, we turn now to John Pike, director of the Alexandria, Virginia, based firm GlobalSecurity.org, and he's with us by phone from his office in Alexandria. Nice to speak with you today.
Mr. JOHN PIKE (Director, GlobalSecurity.org): Good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: What can you tell us about the rockets in Hezbollah's arsenal? Most of them are called Katyushas, of various sorts.
Mr. PIKE: Well, Katyusha, (unintelligible) Russian was the name that these artillery rockets were originally given back during World War II. Today, this term applies to a broad range of artillery rockets, some with small warheads of only a few pounds of explosive with a range of only a few miles, some with warheads of over 100 pounds of explosive and ranges of dozens of miles.
There are several things that are new about this artillery rocket campaign of the last several days. We're seeing new rockets, much longer-range, such as the ones that are being fired against Haifa. That's new. We're also seeing them fired in much, much larger numbers. By one count yesterday, over 350 had been fired. Over the last decade, normally Hezbollah would fire a few of them and that would be it.
So, we're also seeing - I think a third significant event is the Chinese cruise missile, apparently, reportedly, that was fired against the Israeli patrol craft last week. That's something that is completely new. Possibly, Iran may have not a hand in that not simply Hezbollah.
CONAN: That - originally that attack was reported as being from a drone, a pilot-less aircraft flown by Hezbollah. In fact, as you said, Israeli sources now say that was a C-802, a Chinese-made missile, and they say it was fired - radar guided and fired with the use of Lebanese government radars as well.
Mr. PIKE: Well, this all sounds a bit more complex than the sort of relatively simply artillery rocket attacks that we've normally associated with Hezbollah, and so I think people are looking very closely at this to try to understand the extent of which the violence that we're seen over the last several days is being driven simply by internal political dynamics in Lebanon and the extent of which maybe is part of a larger initiative on the part of Iran. Looking at the types of weapons that are being used, of course, is one indicator of that.
CONAN: And these longer range missiles that have been fired at places like Haifa, these are described as Fajr-3s and Fajr-5s, Iranian designed, maybe Syrian manufactured?
Mr. PIKE: Well, probably of Iranian manufacture, because Iran developed a very extensive artillery rocket industry with the help of North Korea back during its war with Iraq, and has been quite proud of its technical achievements on that front.
CONAN: We're talking with John Pike, director of the Alexandria-based firm, GlobalSecurity.org, and you're listening to special coverage from NPR News.
Let's move to Gaza, now. And, John Pike, the rockets that are being fired by Hamas across the border into Israel, these are much smaller, homemade devices?
Mr. PIKE: Well, they started out small, but they're getting larger. The Qassam rocket, named after an early leader of the Palestinian arms struggle. These rockets started out small, with a small warhead and a range of only a few miles. That was the Qassam 1. Now we've worked our way up to the Qassam 3, a much larger warhead and much larger range. Thus far, they've basically been fired out of Gaza. There's concern if Hamas started firing these out of the West Bank that a much larger part of the Israeli population would be vulnerable; and of course if Hamas obtained some of the artillery rockets of the type that Hezbollah has had for some time, again, a much larger portion of the Israeli population would be at risk.
CONAN: And these, all of the rockets we're talking about, what kind of guidance do they have? Are they un-aimed?
Mr. PIKE: Isaac Newton. The rocket motors fire briefly and after that it's on a ballistic trajectory. Basically, depending on the direction that the launcher is pointed at, the angle from the ground that it's inclined to, that's going to determine the target that it actually hits. They're not overwhelmingly accurate, but when you're firing into a densely populated area like Haifa it doesn't have to be terribly accurate in order to hit something.
CONAN: And let's talk about the other party in this conflict. Israel. It's been using its air force, its artillery, and its navy.
Mr. PIKE: Well, they've imposed a blockade on Lebanon in order to make it much more difficult for Syria or Iran to resupply Hezbollah. A naval blockade bombed the airport to close the airfield, bombed roads. Israel has also been bombing infrastructure targets in Lebanon as a way to try to pressure the Lebanese government into doing something about Hezbollah, whether that's going to be effective I think is questionable. But that explains why things like power plants and other industrial facilities have been bombed.
They're not directly connected to Hezbollah, but it's a way of the Israeli's trying to pressure other factions in Lebanon to do something about Hezbollah.
CONAN: As we've - does Israel have the same kind of guided bombs and guided missiles that the United States has been using, which we've seen, of course, are very accurate, though not perfect?
Mr. PIKE: Well, generally they're going to be using either satellite-guided bombs or laser-guided bombs. The problem, of course, is that these heavy weapons are not particularly well suited to urban operations. The United States in Iraq has been trying to move towards much smaller bombs that would destroy a building but not an entire neighborhood.
This is one of the reasons that the Israelis are using artillery in addition to using bombs. The problem being, though, that the artillery, while the explosion is smaller, can be less accurate.
The big problem that the Israelis have in targeting Hezbollah is that by the time one of these artillery rockets is fired, the people who fired it are long gone. They're detonating them remotely the way the roadside bombs are detonated remotely in Iraq.
CONAN: So this, when - even if you can track the trajectory and fire back almost immediately, there's generally nobody on the receiving end.
Mr. PIKE: Well, hopefully there's nobody on the receiving end. If you're unlucky, the way the Israelis were back in the '90s, what's on the receiving end is going to be a refugee camp. They had some very serious civilian casualties as a result of some of their operations against these rocket launchers when they first went into Lebanon in the mid-90s.
CONAN: And the - there have been accusations that Israel has, at least at times and in places, used fuel-air bombs. Are those in use?
Mr. PIKE: I haven't seen those reports. Fuel-air munitions are suitable for certain types of targets, but generally you're going to be using something other than that. But they are part of the American stockpile. I'm not aware of reports that they have been used by the Israelis recently.
CONAN: They were used in Afghanistan by the United States and thought to be pretty effective in cave situations.
Mr. PIKE: Right.
CONAN: And as you look ahead at this, on the Hezbollah side, they're said to have maybe 10,000 or more of these rockets. Obviously, the more sophisticated longer range ones many fewer than the Katyushas.
Mr. PIKE: Well, over the years they've stockpiled an enormous number of these things. As you said, most of them are the short range, with a range of less than ten miles. But it's reported that they have hundreds that would be able to reach a few dozen miles, possible dozens that would be able to reach a range even further than that.
Even though the number of rockets that they've fired over the last few days is really unprecedented - it's just outside of our experience base - it only represents three percent of their reported stockpile. So you have to be concerned that we're much closer to the beginning of this thing than we are to the end of it.
CONAN: And very quickly, if you look at the range of these weapons down the road, if you're talking about operational security, how far back Israel might want to push various forces...
Mr. PIKE: It's going to be very difficult for them to get security against these longer range missiles simply by pushing Hezbollah a few miles away from the border the way they did back in the '90s.
CONAN: John Pike, thanks very much.
Mr. PIKE: Thank you.
CONAN: John Pike, director of the northern Virginia-based firm, GlobalSecurity.org. He joined us by phone from his office in Alexandria.
You've been listening to special coverage from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.