Monday, August 14, 2006

Iranian Advisers Influence Course of Lebanon/Israel Conflict

A. Fulghum and Douglas Barrie, Aviation Week & Space Technology:
The Iranian government has a cadre of "hundreds" of technical advisers in Lebanon that trained, and continue to support, Hezbollah forces in the use of sophisticated anti-ship and anti-tank missiles and unmanned aircraft. No evidence has yet emerged, however, that the Iranians are actually operating any weaponry in the fighting, say U.S. officials. READ MORE

"It's not just a matter of turning weapons over to Hezbollah," a U.S. intelligence official says. "They also have to provide the training [for such advanced weapons]." Other munitions possessed by Iran (particularly those bought from Russia) have not been used in the Lebanon/Israel conflict, because the provenance would be obvious and, in some cases, "the Iranians don't want to be associated with that," he says. Nonetheless, "there is evidence that Iranians are in the country training Hezbollah." They remain in Lebanon, but until late last week appeared to have avoided direct participation in combat.

That situation may have changed, however, with the discovery of papers on the bodies of soldiers killed in Southern Lebanon on Aug. 9 that identified them as members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. "There's a possibility they could have been operating systems, but they weren't necessarily fighting. It could have been a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time," the intelligence official said.

"Despite a couple of reports that the Iranians were at the controls of rocket launchers in the early part of the conflict, that's not our conclusion," the U.S. intelligence official says. "The group was originally in the hundreds. We haven't seen any large numbers leave." The Iranian government denies that they have advisers or trainers in Lebanon. The U.S. State Dept. says the Iranians provide arms and funding, but won't answer questions about advisers. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) sources put the number of advisers at about 100.

U.S. ANALYSTS WON'T confirm that the Hezbollah UAV shot down in the Mediterranean by Israeli fighters last week was operated by Iranians or even Iranian-trained insurgents. But, obtaining the aircraft and learning how to launch and program its flight "would have taken outside help," the intelligence official says. Hezbollah's first recorded incursion into Israeli airspace with a UAV occurred in late 2004.

An IDF infrared video taken from high altitude, directly over the interception, shows an Israeli F-16 (from 110 Sqdn. at Ramat David AB) attacking the UAV. Shortly before coming abreast of the unmanned craft, the fighter fires what was likely a Python 4 missile controlled by a helmet-mounted sight. The missile makes a rapid turn of more than 100 deg. and strikes the UAV, just after the fighter passes it. The film may have been doctored to hide the true infrared picture of the Israeli fighter.

Fragments of the UAV recovered from the water by the IDF shows a 10-ft.-wide wing broken in two at the fuselage with twin vertical stabilizers (marked with Hezbollah insignia) well inboard of the wingtips (see center photo). An unattached flight control appears to be from the smaller canard airfoil attached to the forward fuselage.

International aerospace industry officials, without being specific, say that countries other than Iran are also working with various insurgent groups in the region, including Hezbollah. They point out Russian anti-aircraft missile sales to Syria and the Mar. 3 visit of a Hamas delegation to Moscow. U.S. intelligence analysts say Syria is supplying some arms to Hezbollah, but not at the level of Iran, nor does it appear to have training cadres in Lebanon. They contend that while Chinese weaponry is being used, it was either transferred in the 1990s or came from illegal sales through intermediaries. The U.S. recently announced a two-year trade sanction against arms trader Rosoboronexport for selling the TOR-M1 (SA-15 Gauntlet) air defense missile system to Iran. That move may backfire since Russian support is critical to U.N. approval of any U.S.-orchestrated cease-fire agreement in Lebanon.

So far, the most spectacular use of a Chinese weapons system was the attack on the Hanit, an Israeli Saar 5 missile corvette. Hezbollah operators appear to have fired two C-802 anti-ship missiles in a high-low flight profile against the Israeli ship. The turbojet-powered C-802 has a range of up to 120 km. (74.5 mi.) and a 155-kg. (341-lb.) blast-fragmentation warhead. Damage to the Saar 5 did not reflect a direct hit by a weapon in this class, however, which suggests either a glancing blow or a partial warhead failure. Two impact areas appear to be visible on the Hanit--one amidship, the other at the front of the helicopter deck. Both are just above the waterline. The second missile sank a merchant ship. Other analysts are suggesting that the Hanit may have been hit by one or more short-range missiles while a single high-trajectory C-802 served as a decoy for the ship's defenses. That view may be supported by the fact that the ship appears to have been within the minimum range required by the C-802 to function properly.

Iran is a recipient of the C-802. A brochure published by Iran's aerospace industries organization's cruise systems group describes both ship- and truck-launched versions of the missile, known as Noor in Iran. The launch vehicle illustrated can carry three missiles. Also described is the radar and command vehicle for the system.

Russian-made RPG-29s from Iran and Kornet-E and Metis-M anti-tank missiles provided by Syria have been used in massive volleys as key weapons in tank ambushes that disabled some of Israel's top-of-the-line Merkava III heavy tanks.

IRAN REVEALED a further addition to its UAV inventory--what appears to be an anti-radiation drone known as Toufan 2--in a military parade earlier this year (AW&ST Apr. 24, p. 59) (see photo p. 20). Israeli officials had described the UAV fished out of Israeli waters last week as a Mirsad-1 built by Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries. However, the debris appears to be that of a related, but slightly larger, canard-wing Ababil-3 (Swallow). Israeli sources say a few dozen Lebanese were trained to operate the aircraft by members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah was supplied with up to eight of the vehicles. Hezbollah officials claim the aircraft can carry 40-50 kg. of explosives deep into Israel, but U.S. analysts questioned the claim because of the 3-3.25-meter wingspan and 10-25-hp. engines attributed to that size UAV. Israeli analysts suggested the Ababil might just edge into the 40-kg. payload class.

There also is some suspense in the U.S. intelligence community about the weaponry still in Hezbollah's arsenal. There is growing concern about long-range missiles (such as the 210-km. Zelzal-2) that can reach Tel Aviv and the SA-18 surface-to-air munitions. Syria purchased them from Russia, but despite speculation they may have been passed to Hezbollah, they have not yet been used in the current conflict.

Senior U.S. officials in Iraq earlier had validated that the advanced anti-aircraft missile was in the region as early as 2004 and that it might be employed against U.S. aircraft, particularly lower-flying helicopters. The SA-16 had been used, they confirmed, leading the U.S. Army to change routes, altitude and tactics for its helicopters and low-flying transports. Israeli strike aircraft don't appear to be operating in either missile's altitude envelope; however, slow-flying UAVs do fly as low as 10,000 ft. which could make them a target. Israeli Air Force officials have pointed to persistent UAV observations as a crucial component for round-the-clock bombing campaigns.

But while the shoulder-fired SAMs are troublesome, the weapons that might change the complexion of the conflict for the worse are the long-range, surface-to-surface missiles.

The U.S. has no solid information about the true operational intent of the Israelis, the intelligence official says. However, if Hezbollah does as it promises and uses new, longer-range missiles to strike Tel Aviv, "Israel will retaliate in a strong way," he says. "When we were evacuating U.S. citizens, the Israelis agreed to give us a clear corridor out [of Lebanon]. But now they've made a mess of the country. It's difficult to move around with the damage they've inflicted."

AS A RESULT, there isn't much more physically for the Israelis to attack. Other than continuing to strike Hezbollah strongholds in south Beirut, there are few targets. But with the cease-fire nearing, a surprise launching of Hezbollah's longer-range rockets could happen at any time, the U.S. official warns.

"There's not that much more [for the IAF] to destroy that will be productive, so they will go after the Hezbollah leadership which is pretty much dug in and has not moved across the border into Syria," the intelligence official says.

By last week, Israel's Ministry of Defense tallied 4,400 targets that had been struck in Lebanon since July 12. During the same period, a full-time Hezbollah force of 2,000-4,000 combatants launched more than 3,500 rockets at Israel. That's a small percentage of the arsenal of 10,000-12,000 rockets and 1,000-1,500 launchers (of which about 300 have been destroyed) that Hezbollah assembled before the war along the Lebanon-Israel border started, the U.S. intelligence official says. Many of the missiles and launchers are stored in civilian dwellings and in a complex of tunnels, which allows operators to move into the open, fire and return to hiding within minutes, he says.

Israeli forces will try to go as far north and east as possible--likely to the Syrian border--before a U.N.-sponsored cease-fire is enforced, says the U.S. intelligence official.

"None of this fighting will have done them any good if their [occupying] forces can be flanked by the Hezbollah without going into Syria," he says. "No doubt the Israelis will try to hang on to a buffer area of 8-12 km. and they won't withdraw before the cease-fire. History shows us that the territory you have at the cease-fire is where the boundaries are drawn."