Giancarlo Elia Valori
The “precision project” of Iranian missiles, especially the Zelzal model (where the word “zelzal” means earthquake in Farsi), currently operating in the Lebanon, has reached a severe critical point.
The “Party of God” is currently the most important non-State military actor in the world, which is certainly even more powerful than the Lebanese army itself, with at least 30,000 full-time fighters and additional 25,000 reservists.
All very well trained by the Iranian Pasdaran, who in 1982 founded the Party with a personal decision of Imam Khomeini.
The Zelzal missiles (and those currently available to Hezbollah are above all the Zelzal 3) are solid propellant surface-to-surface missiles, a model officially created in 2007, with a stable range of over 250 kilometres.
According to the Iranian and Lebanese governments, these missiles have a range between 180 and 250 kilometres; a length of 9,600 millimetres; a diameter of 616 millimetres; a maximum weight of the armed warhead equal to 900 kilograms and an average margin of error at arrival lower than five metres. The propellant is the HTBP, an oligomer of butadiene having the following formula.
They have a maximum weight of 1,980 kilos and operate in a maximum of 20 seconds. Their maximum service cycle is seven years.
For the time being, the Iranian project in the Lebanon – and only for Hezbollah – entails the turning of over 14,000 Zelzal 2 and 3 into high-precision missiles.
The missile infrastructure project can convert Zelzal-2 into high-precision missiles with a unit cost – over a few hours – of approximately 5,000-10,000 US dollars. An operation that Iran has been doing for some time, also for the Houthi guerrilla warfare in Yemen.
Obviously, this fast rapid reconversion immediately endangers Israel’s commercial, intelligence and military networks in the Red Sea, but also directly all US bases in the Greater Middle East.
Initially Iran tried to send these missiles to the Lebanon directly via Syria, along the Iraqi-Lebanese Shiite “corridor”. Israel, however, has long been carrying out many precise air raids, capable of making the old “corridor” from Iraq to the Lebanon – the real target of Iran’s war in Syria – completely unsafe and above all making also the production of Zelzal 2 and 3 missiles in Syria ineffective.
In response, Iran launched its own technical and intelligence operation, with a view to enabling the Zelzal 2 and 3 missiles already present in the Lebanon (which are currently estimated at approximately 14,000 units) to have an autonomous and advanced GPS (and also Russian GLONASS) guidance system.
The most important parts of these missiles are still transported, obviously disassembled, from Iran and Iraq to the Lebanon, in Hezbollah’s covert factories, both by land – in the parallel network of the Iraqi-Lebanese “corridor” – and by air from Syria, using the private commercial lines owned by the Pasdaran.
When the missiles arrive in the Lebanese factories in the hands of Hezbollah (and the Iranian Pasdaran) – often located underground – the Zelzal 2 and 3 missiles are upgraded in their intermediate control and command sector. A system is installed for GPS guidance or for the Russian satellite system, a new integrated command and control system. All this basically regards the turning of a Zelzal 2 into a new Fateh 110 missile.
The Fateh 110 is precisely a short-range Iranian missile, usable on land-based mobile launchers, always with solid propellant.
Probably it also incorporates Chinese-made guidance systems and has, however, a length of 8.86 metres; a diameter of 0.61 metres; a weight at launch of 3,450 kilos and a maximum charge of 500 kilos, as well as a maximum operating range of 300 kilometres.
It is not yet completely clear how many Zelzal 2 missiles turned into Fateh 110 are now available to Hezbollah, but it is thought that the “Party of God” currently has approximately 150 high-precision missiles.
However, the Lebanese Zelzal 2 missiles not yet upgraded are supposed to be 14,000.
It should be recalled that Hezbollah has already attacked with missiles the refinery in Haifa – fortunately without repeating the 1947 massacre – some Israeli air bases, the areas near the nuclear reactor of Dimona, and the Kirya military base of the Israeli Armed Forces, as well as the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Hence, this is the problem: while it is certainly true that Israel has the maximum coverage at missile level, it is equally true that absolute protection is no longer possible.
It is therefore tragically probable that, in the future, the Israeli Defence may be forced to choose between the protection of critical infrastructure and the protection of the most populated centres.
The best strategic solution for Israel can be a direct preventive attack into the Lebanon, which would lead to a full outbreak with the Lebanon, but also with Syria, with the Sunni groups operating there, with Iran and with a share of Shiite militants from Iraq already stationing on the Bekaa-Golan border.
One of the current Israeli strategies, however, is to maintain a focus of international attention and intelligence on Hezbollah‘s missiles and to disclose, at the same time, much accurate intelligence data, capable of assessing and checking the danger of this new composition of forces on the Israeli borders.
Incidentally, however, are we really sure that Iran wants to start destroying the Jewish State – just for mere silly anti-Semitic madness – thus setting the region on fire to finally do a favour probably only to its Sunni enemies?
As well as eventually favour a complete clash with the Iranian interests in the Lebanon and Syria of the Western forces, which would easily enter from a destabilized Israel into Iran?
If only the Europeans were less foolish, they could also put credible pressure on Hezbollah, thus letting Hariri’s new government – that still appears friendly to Westerners – know that all this is a clear and very severe violation of the UN Resolution n. 1701.
A pressure capable of forcing also the Russian Federation and China to become milder and more reasonable.
Certainly, the situation is increasingly complex.
As already said, Hezbollah owns approximately 140,000 Iranian-made missiles, hidden in private houses on the Lebanese border with Israel. According to the statistics of the last conflict between the “Party of God” and Israel in 2006, at least 14,000 of them, which are certainly Zelzal 2 and 3 missiles, can be launched at a rate between 180 and 1,200 per day.
Obviously, the saturation of launches from the Lebanon is capable of causing damage against resources or forces, which could jeopardize Israel’s military response and its internal social stability.
As already said, currently Hezbollah’s “precision project” is organized directly by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards.
Considering Israel’s internal structure, it is enough to hit some critical infrastructure (airports, including the civilian ones, factories, inhabited centres) and the more accurate missiles are, the fewer they are needed to achieve seriously destructive effects.
It should be recalled, however, that Hezbollah has also SCUD 2 missiles available, always deployed in the Lebanon, which are supposed to have an operating range between 200 and 400 kilometres.
The “Party of God” also bought from Bashar al-Assad’s Syria some M-600 Tishreen missiles, the Syrian version of the already mentioned Fateh 110, with different guidance and control systems.
The GPS accuracy of missiles, however, is critical for their strategic effects.
Precision missiles are such especially because they have a low Circular Error Probability (CEP).
CEP is the radius of the circle that should enclose 50% of the points of arrival of the missiles launched.
Hence the lower the CEP, the fewer missiles are needed to destroy a target.
The missiles with GPS and GLONASS systems reach their target through inertial mechanisms.
The main coordinates of the target are entered into the missile, at the time of launch, via laptop.
GPS and GLONASS systems use accelerometers and gyroscopes that move wings and external supports on the missile surface. With immediate feedback on the route and the amount of inertia-fuel that is evaluated immediately and automatically by the missile itself.
The solid propellant engine, however, lasts about 30 seconds and then the missile is driven by inertia.
Corrections to the route are possible until the time of impact.
All these Iranian missiles available to Hezbollah, however, are mobile by road.
The non-negligible size of the missile makes it liable, for a short period, to be hit before the launch, but it is certainly a particularly difficult operation.
The Zelzal 2 and Fateh 110 missiles are similar and hence their refitting with GPS or GLONASS systems is relatively simple and entails small additional parts which are easy to transfer.
It should be noted once again that Iran uses both the Western GPS and the Russian Glonass as satellite sensor.
Just 2-3 hours per missile are enough to turn an old Zelzal into a precision missile, i.e. the time needed to replace the guidance system, the new surface fins and the inertial control system.
Some hundreds of Lebanese militants for the Hezbollah missile system are trained in a special section of the Imam Husseyn University in Tehran, the official university of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but only to upgrade the missiles, and many of the “Party of God” have already returned to the Lebanon.
Spare parts and materials are sent to Syria and the Lebanon by land or by air, with the formally civilian airlines owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The new parts are stored and checked especially in the warehouses of Damascus airport, but the Syrian factories of missile parts have all been placed under the Pasdaran direct control since December 2016.
Hence the Hezbollah logic is probably that the more missiles – even low-precision ones – are available, less possible will be for Israel to choose a preventive strategy of destruction of the arsenals before they are used.
How much damage can such a missile – upgraded by Iran for the Lebanese Shiites – do?
The Fateh 110 missile has a 100-metre CEP and can hence destroy a standard target with a 75% probability rate.
For urban targets in highly populated areas the Fateh 110 CEP decreases further.
Israel is small and densely populated, with a very high distribution of critical targets between resident population and urban systems.
Particularly important centres are located very close to each other, in an area that, on average, is about 20 kilometres wide and 100 metres deep.
Israel has 20 energy production areas, three commercial ports and a large international airport.
It has also the military bases of Palmahim, Tel Nof, Nevatim and Hatzor, as well as Dimona, the Haifa refinery, and the IDF headquarters in the centre of Tel Aviv.
The operational coverage of Hezbollah’s missile factories in the Lebanon is also varied: under a football field, just north of the Beirut airport, near the Uza’i canal and in many private houses, often of individuals not reported as Shiite militants.
There are also Lebanese missile depots in Latakia – right near the Russian positions and, probably, in such a way as to make them also the target of an Israeli counter-operation – as well as in Safita, Hisya and, as already mentioned, in Damascus.
It should be recalled, however, that all Israeli air raids against the launch sites, factories and areas for upgrading Hezbollah’s Iranian missiles – starting from the one of November 2017 in Hisya to the one on Jamaraya, in February 2018, until the operation on Latakia of September 2018 – were carried out by Israel in full agreement with the Russian Federation.
Nevertheless, unlike what happened in Syria, Israel has still no intention of carrying out stable preventive actions on the Lebanese territory, in a region that could quickly trigger off a major conflict with Syria, Iran, the Sunni groups and many others.
In terms of protection and missile response, Israel can still count on the Iron Dome, a network of sensors and early warning missile batteries, with additional advanced mortar batteries – operational since 2012 – but above all operating against the old Qassam or Soviet Katiusce rockets.
It works optimally for targets around 70-100 kilometres.
Since 2017 Israel has also been operating David’s Sling, a medium range and medium-high charge missile network, operating up to 300 kilometres, which is useful precisely against the Fateh 110, the Zelzal 2 and 3 missiles, as well as against the Syrian M-600 missiles, including those upgraded with the Iranian GPS-GLONASS. Israel also owns the Arrow 2 network, with ballistic missiles having a long range of over 200 kilometres, which has been operating since 2000. Finally, since 2017 Israel has also been operating Arrow 3, a network of sensors and missiles with a range over 200 kilometres and spatial guidance in their final trajectory phase.
However, there is still a problem.
The anti-missile networks, even the most specialized and modern such as the Israeli ones, can be quickly saturated by a very high rate of almost simultaneous launches and by missile decoding actions in flight, which can blind or otherwise limit the full anti-missile response.
While it is true that Israel has no difficulty in selecting missiles targeted to critical areas of its territory, or those targeted to irrelevant areas, it is equally true that the interceptors are extremely expensive to be placed on site, infinitely more expensive than the missiles they have to intercept, especially if they are short-range missiles.
Hence, in a tragic future, the Jewish State might be forced to choose to defend only the critical infrastructure, thus leaving some populated centres overexposed.
A politically suicidal choice for any government.
Obviously, an unavoidable option for Israel will also be to bring the war – probably not just the air one – into the Lebanon, with evident cascading effects for all the forces present in the region.
Therefore it is fully rational that the Israeli government has made the choice of creating a new IDF “missile Corps” to specifically face this new type of threat, which will come from the North, but also from the South, from the Gaza Strip and, possibly, from the jihadist networks now controlling the Sinai region.
Iran’s technology in the field of missile precision guidance, however, comes from the US Paveway IV (CEP 15 metres, 70,000 US dollars per missile), which is a missile incorporating a dual communication system, carrying out anti-jamming activity on the GPS network (but not on GLONASS), and a semi-active laser guidance.
Currently Great Britain uses the Brimstone, with a CEP lower than one metre and a particularly advanced laser guidance system.
Great Britain has also the Exactor 2 available, a multirole missile with a 30-kilometre range.
A system that is almost completely automated.
All technologies also available to Iran.
The fast reverse engineering of the allied and Western materials found in Syria worked miracles for Iran.
According to Israeli sources, the cost of the new Iranian project on precision missiles in the Lebanon should total 17 billion US dollars, all invested in Hezbollah‘s networks only.
Currently the final unit cost per missile is expected to be 10,000 US dollars.
As disclosed by various intelligence sources, however, the Lebanese program still has only 250 missiles already operational, as demonstrated by the documentary film produced by the Lebanese Shiite group, which shows an IDF border patrol, the 401th armoured brigade, hit in an accident occurred four years ago.
It is strange: the Israeli patrol had an M4 Windbreaker tank available, which has a significant passive and active anti-missile defence. Hence Hezbollah, however, has correctly inferred that Israel has currently the ability to send units by land to the Lebanese territory to bring the confrontation to the Lebanese Shiite region.
Which is exactly what Hezbollah does not want at all.
Both the Israeli military services and the Israeli Armed Forces, however, have explicitly stated that Hezbollah “has not yet the industrial capacity to turn the missiles supplied by Iran into precision missiles”.
For the time being, however, the “Party of God” is supposed to have 90-250 missiles available, already prepared for high-precision actions.
It is not what Iran and Hezbollah need to carry out the missile saturation operation they have in mind.
It should also be considered that the “Party of God” normally fails at least 10% of launches, while currently the international standard is 4% for small and medium-sized missiles.
Hence with 50% of the missiles stopped at departure or in flight by Israeli forces – as always happens – finally only 50 of the 250 missiles upgraded by Iran could be currently launched and become really dangerous for Israel.
The political and strategic effect would remain anyway, considering the population density and the complexity of the Israeli defence and infrastructure system.
Therefore the problem is not solved anyway by waiting.
Hence both Iran and Hezbollah have recently decided to confine the upgrade program only to the 14,000 Zelzal 2 missiles already present and operational, without updates, in the Lebanese Shiite group’s arsenal.
Here again, however, there are many problems.
New factories are needed, with a piece-by-piece process that turns a Zelzal 2 or 3 into a Fateh 110 missile, which has a 300-kilometre range.
Which is exactly what the Iranian and Lebanese Shiites need in the first missile salvo.
Nevertheless, while Iran has already produced 4,000 new high-precision missiles in the above mentioned university research centres in Tehran, so far only 1,000 have safely reached the Lebanon.
Another problem for Hezbollah and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the inevitably significant areas needed to upgrade the missiles both in Syria and in the Lebanon.
All areas already hit by Israeli attacks that, however, are still limited and well-known.
The few factories that have recently been operational in Syria and the Lebanon have already been hit by Israeli air strikes.
Hence, for the time being, Hezbollah has solved the problem by distributing the missiles to be upgraded to small and widespread factories, located throughout Southern Lebanon, and the few ones still existing in Syria.
This means that the process for upgrading the missiles becomes slower, more difficult and hence less qualitatively significant.
Therefore, the previously mentioned costs increase proportionately to the difficulties of technical upgrading. Hence, if the upgraded missiles cost at least 11,000 US dollars each, the total technological upgrade of Hezbollah’s missiles will be worth at least 145 million US dollars.
Therefore, everything is resolved in the standard time needed for the Iranian upgrade and for Israeli response and certainly for a new possible indirect agreement between Israeli and Syria, not mediated – today, as in the 1990s – by the United States.
A tacit agreement that is worth, today, in a framework of agreements between Syria itself, which got its grip on the Lebanon and currently cannot hold it any longer, and Israel itself, which could accept – after a credible threat on Hezbollah – a Russian or even US mediation on the current equilibria in the Lebanon.
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France
President of International World Group