Reports last week that Syria had transferred an unspecified number of SCUD missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon, whilst vehemently denied by Damascus, are now being ignored, ambiguously, by senior Hezbollah sources. If indeed the allegations are true, then the transfer would represent the first acquisition of SCUD type missiles by a non-state actor, a violation of UN Resolution 1701 – which called for the disarming of all armed groups in Lebanon. The missiles would also now be the furthest-range and most precise weapons in Hezbollah’s arsenal, reported in 2009 to contain as many as 80,000 short-range rockets.
Upon closer inspection, however, it seems that any SCUD missiles would have little utility for Hezbollah’s operations in Southern Lebanon. Thus, if the story is true, reactions which suggest the possible transfer could or should ignite a war seem highly misplaced…
The majority of the rockets Hezbollah fired during the 2006 Lebanon War were either of the Katyusha type, with a range of 20-40km, or improved variants of the Grad type, with ranges in the region of 70 – 100km. Both rockets are cheap to produce and thus Hezbollah acquired thousands of them. Because both rocket types were characterized by having man portable, remote, or truck mounted launchers, and were powered by solid fuel, they had the advantage of being able to be used by personnel with little training. This, combined with the scale of the arsenal, enabled Hezbollah to continue their bombardment even after countless launch operatives were killed by Israeli air attacks.
Since the 2006 conflict, it is evident that Hezbollah has continued its effort to stockpile rockets like those it used in its war with Israel. The 2009 claim that they possess 80,000 rockets suggests their arsenal has now increased in size by nearly three times since 2006. Any advances in Israeli anti-rocket technology will be greatly minimized by the sheer scale of this new force. In addition, it seems that Hezbollah recently took delivery of the Iranian made Fatah-110, capable of reaching targets up to 200km away using GPS guidance. Launched from southern Lebanon, the extended range of the Fatah-110 would now enable Hezbollah to target Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. These factors all greatly increase Hezbollah’s deterrence vis-à-vis Israel. In this context, and for a number of other reasons, it thus seems puzzling that they would be interested in acquiring SCUD capabilities from Damascus.
First, in contrast to Hezbollah’s current rocket capability, maintaining and operating any variant of the SCUD is substantially harder work. Being liquid fuelled, SCUDs require trained personnel knowledgeable of how to handle extremely hazardous liquid fuels. In addition, SCUD missiles and their transporter erector launchers (TELs) require a fair amount of logistics support. Consequently Hezbollah would have had to send personnel to undergo extensive training in Syria if they did acquire any SCUDs. And if these personnel were killed in conflict, replacing them would be far harder than replacing the personnel that launch Hezbollah’s short-range rockets.
Second, road-mobile SCUD launchers are substantial pieces of equipment – far easier to see from reconnaissance aircraft and satellites than the improvised rocket launching facilities that Hezbollah used in 2006. Given the Israeli Air Force’s experience and success in targeting the much smaller mobile launchers of the 2006 Lebanon War, it seems probable that any SCUD launchers would be even easier targets for Israel to destroy today. And because of this, they could even invite a pre-emptive Israeli strike, something Hezbollah would want only if it was actively seeking war (which is nonetheless possible).
Even if it did not destroy the launchers in advance of an attack, Israel has deployed its advanced Arrow missile defense system throughout the country to protect exactly from the threat of a SCUD type ballistic missile attack. Indeed, it was precisely because this system is so well suited to intercepting SCUDs that it proved so useless for Israel in defending against Hezbollah’s short-range rocket bombardment in 2006. As such, it is hard to understand why Hezbollah would now be motivated to procure a system so potentially susceptible to interception.
Finally, unless Hezbollah were to develop a chemical or biological warhead for its SCUDs, it is hard to see what strategic advantage (aside from range) SCUDs might provide over their rocket based alternatives. Indeed, in using conventionally armed warheads, Iraq’s volley of 39 SCUDS fired at Israel in 1991 resulted in just fourteen deaths. Thus without non-conventional warheads they offer little destructive advantage. Paradoxically, because Hezbollah are aware that using non-conventional warheads against Israel would invite a highly severe response (possibly eroding their public support), it seems even less likely that they would be interested in pursuing a non-conventional capability.
While it thus seems unlikely that it would be in Hezbollah’s interest to acquire SCUD missiles form Syria, it does of course remain plausible that a transfer did take place. For these very same reasons though, even if Hezbollah has acquired a limited SCUD capability, little has changed in the balance of power. As a result, the notion that this transfer is worthy of a military response, especially in the context of Hezbollah’s arsenal of 80,000 short-range rockets, seems ill-advised.