July 9, 2024 | FDD's Long War Journal

A greatly expanded arsenal means this is not the Hezbollah of 2006

July 9, 2024 | FDD's Long War Journal

A greatly expanded arsenal means this is not the Hezbollah of 2006

Hezbollah launched dozens of rockets into northern Israel on Sunday. That attack followed a July 4 assault in which the terror group fired approximately 200 projectiles and over 20 aerial objects into Israel. These incidents come amidst a deteriorating situation on the northern front of Israel’s multi-front war, where Hezbollah has launched at least 2,900 attacks since October, and tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced from their homes.

Though Hezbollah’s earliest organizational tactics revolved around terrorist attacks and guerrilla operations, the group has transformed its military wing in recent years into a conventional force conservatively estimated at 40,000 combatants. Accompanying this force is a massive stockpile of at least 150,000 mortars, short- to long-range unguided rockets, unguided short-range ballistic missiles, and smaller numbers of intermediate-range unguided Scud-B/C/D ballistic missiles. Hezbollah has converted portions of this inventory into precision-guided munitions (PGMs) designed to target strategic sites in Israel and diversified its precision guidance capabilities by incorporating new variants of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) and unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

Much of Hezbollah’s arsenal is kept in an integrated network of subterranean facilities under or near population centers in southern Lebanon, Beirut, and the Bekaa Valley. This situation presents serious challenges for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and underscores Israel’s requirement for sufficient quantities of munitions to defend its citizens and defeat Hezbollah in a major war that could come sooner rather than later. To understand Israel’s military requirements, it is important to scrutinize Hezbollah’s growing and increasingly capable arsenal.

Unguided rockets and missiles

During the 2006 Lebanon War, Hezbollah fired roughly 4,000 of its then-estimated 15,000 rockets and missiles at Israel in just five weeks and caused 46 Israeli civilian deaths. Now, Hezbollah possesses at least 150,000 mortars, rockets, and missiles, and recent Israeli estimates suggest the terror group could launch at least 2,500 rockets per day for eight weeks.

Hezbollah is estimated to have anywhere between 40,000–80,000 short-range rockets that could bombard northern Israel with saturating fire. The arsenal primarily consists of Katyusha rockets of varying calibers, mostly 122mm, with ranges from four to 40 kilometers. These rockets were Hezbollah’s weapon of choice during the 2006 Lebanon War. But Hezbollah also has many other short-range rockets with higher payloads, such as the Burkan (10 kilometers), Falaq-1 and -2 (10–11 kilometers), and Shanin-1 (13 kilometers). Hezbollah used the Burkan for the first time against Israel in November 2023 and the Falaq-2 against Israel on June 8. The majority of the cross-border attacks from Lebanon into Israel since October reflect these shorter-range systems firing against Israeli targets within 10 kilometers of the Blue Line (the de facto border between Israel and Lebanon).

Hezbollah’s arsenal is bolstered by an estimated 60,000–80,000 longer-range rockets, including the Fajr-3 and -5 (43, 75 kilometers), Raad-2 and -3 (60–70 kilometers), and Khaibar-1 (100 kilometers). If Hezbollah fires these longer-range systems from south of the Litani River, many of these munitions would leave Haifa, a city of over 270,000 people located less than 40 kilometers from the border with Lebanon, vulnerable to intense fire. Additionally, Hezbollah’s Zelzal-1 (125–160 kilometers) and Zelzal-2 (210 kilometers), Iranian variants of Soviet artillery ballistic missiles, and Fateh-110 (250–300 kilometers), Iranian enhanced unguided short-range ballistic missiles, could threaten over 4 million Israelis living in and around Tel Aviv with larger 450kg and 600kg warheads. Zelzal-2 and Fateh-110 ballistic missiles can strike Tel Aviv and its environs from launch sites closer to Beirut than the Blue Line, while Scud B/C/D intermediate-range ballistic missiles could reach southern Israel, depending on the size of the payload.

When Hezbollah first became a rocket threat in 1983, one of the IDF’s chief operational goals was to push the group 40 kilometers north of the border beyond the range of the prolific Katyusha systems. Hezbollah’s increased medium- and long-range fires capabilities mean Israel can no longer rely on strategies that simply push the group north beyond the ranges of its arsenal. With the Zelzal-2 and Fateh-110 ranges in Hezbollah’s hands, for example, the IDF would need to push Hezbollah’s forces north of Tripoli to prevent its reach into Israel. Though Israel struck Hezbollah’s Zelzal-2 missiles in the 2006 Lebanon War, Iran has been actively working to reduce operational setup times and increase system mobility. This limits the system’s vulnerability to the time-sensitive targeting needed to curtail the launch rates of Hezbollah’s longest-range systems.

Precision-guided munitions capabilities

Hezbollah’s massive and diverse unguided rocket arsenal is further bolstered by its growing PGM capabilities. Since the last large-scale military conflict with Israel in 2006, Hezbollah has repeatedly claimed it acquired a PGM capability that enables the terror group to target strategic sites in Israel. That means Hezbollah could use fewer of its weapons to strike at the most critical targets and is more likely to score direct hits on those sites if the systems are not intercepted.

Upgrading an unguided rocket to a PGM requires the installation of a navigation system and a guidance and control computer that can calculate the relative position of the missile to the target. The guidance system issues signals to control surfaces that steer the missile’s flight path to a target. Hezbollah had significant assistance from Iran in acquiring and developing this technology.

Hezbollah and Iran both used their cooperative revenue generation and weapons trafficking mechanisms (driven by Hezbollah’s Unit 4400, formerly Unit 108, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Unit 190) to secure internationally and smuggle regionally the technologies that have generated mutual qualitative advances in their weapons inventories since 2006. Many of the component technologies for Hezbollah’s PGM guidance kits were developed at the direction of the IRGC in the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Scientifique/CERS). However, production and transit in Syria were vulnerable to interdiction. This likely incentivized the IRGC to focus on indigenous PGM production capacity in Lebanon.

As early as 2014, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah claimed a precision-guided missile capability. Subsequent reports in 2017 by Kuwaiti media outlets raised additional concerns about an emerging program that indicated Hezbollah was not just purchasing PGM but developing them. In 2018, Nasrallah again claimed to have acquired a PGM capability despite Israel’s interdiction operations in Syria. Israel repeatedly presented information to the United Nations in 2018 and 2020 detailing the locations of alleged missile facilities within Lebanon. Nasrallah himself confirmed in February 2022 that Iranian advisors helped Hezbollah upgrade some of the rocket inventory into PGMs from facilities within Lebanon. These domestic conversion facilities reduced some of the ground-based smuggling traffic throughout the region that was vulnerable to interception, making it more difficult to estimate Hezbollah’s exact PGM capacity.

In a 2020 interview, Nasrallah claimed to have doubled the PGM inventory the previous year, suggesting a major acceleration of production or procurement volume compared to the first five years of Hezbollah’s PGM program. In February 2022, Nasrallah claimed he could convert thousands of rockets into PGMs. However, precise estimates on how many Hezbollah now possesses and which types of missiles have been converted still vary from several hundred to over a thousand.

Hezbollah almost certainly inflates numbers in their statements for a deterrent effect. Still, even the most conservative estimates of low-hundreds of PGMs mean that if Hezbollah launches small volleys of PGMs in concert with large volleys of unguided rockets, Israel will struggle to intercept inbound threats with the same efficiency as in previous conflicts with Gaza-based terror groups. Any PGMs not destroyed by Israel’s defenses can target strategic sites with greater accuracy. Nasrallah spoke to this strategy as early as 2018 and gave specific examples this past August when he threatened “civilian and military airports, airbases, power stations … and the Dimona (nuclear) power station.”

Zelzal-2 or Fateh-110/M-600 systems with a GPS-guidance kit could carry a 450kg or 600kg explosive the 200–300 kilometers from southern Lebanon to strike Dimona with serious consequences. Other possible targets for long-range PGMs include high-value assets such as IDF headquarters, bases, and command centers, government facilities including the Knesset, and energy infrastructure. In conjunction with the July 4 attack of more than 200 rockets, the head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, Hashem Safieddine, stated further retaliatory strikes would include “new sites [Israel] never imagined would be hit.” These claims build on a decade of Hezbollah’s leadership speaking to transformations in the capabilities of its PGM arsenal.

Should those PGMs successfully strike the air and missile defense sites themselves, as Hezbollah attempted against an Iron Dome site in Ramot Naftali on June 5, then a larger percentage of both guided missiles and unguided rockets would stand a better chance of hitting their targets. Hezbollah alluded to this strategy when it released a video on June 18 emphasizing its drone reconnaissance of Iron Dome sites and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems facilities around Haifa.

One of Hezbollah’s shortest but most lethal precision guidance capabilities is its ATGM inventory, which consists of six variants with different forms of dated and modern precision guidance. Hezbollah’s short-range ATGMs proved lethal against the IDF in the 2006 Lebanon War and are now used on a weekly, if not daily, basis in cross-border attacks against IDF positions and patrols.

Hezbollah uses the Soviet-era AT-3 Sagger (3 kilometers), AT-4 Spigot (2.5 kilometers), and AT-5 Spandrel (4 kilometers) armor-piercing capabilities. They also use the more modern Russian AT-13 Saxhorn-2 (1.5 kilometers) and thermal-imaging AT-14 Kornet (5 kilometers), as well as various Iranian variants of these systems, such as the Almas series of ATGM. On June 16, Hezbollah employed the fourth generation Almas: an ATGM with a deadly ballistic trajectory that can strike targets from beyond the line of sight. Hezbollah has used ATGMs and Burkan to attack IDF positions and personnel along the northern border as well as civilian infrastructure.

Hezbollah has been operating Iranian-provided unmanned aerial systems since at least 2004. When employed as one-way attack UAS or loitering munitions, these systems provide Hezbollah with yet another category of precision-guided weapons to target strategic sites and population centers. On July 4, the IDF said Hezbollah launched “20 suspicious aerial targets,” likely UAS, in conjunction with its barrage of 200 rockets, and further indicated that while the Iron Dome system intercepted some rockets, other ground-based defense and fighter aircraft were used to intercept the UAS. It is evident that Hezbollah’s drones, especially those made of carbon or wood, are proving difficult for the radars in the IDF Aerial Defense Array to track.

Hezbollah’s available UAS include several Iranian-exported variants such as the Shahed-129 (2,000 kilometers), the Mohajer-4 (150 kilometers), and the Ababil-2 and Ababil-T loitering munition (120 kilometers). Perhaps most concerning, Hezbollah is assessed to have the turbo-jet propelled Karrar (1,000 kilometers range) equipped with the Majid thermal missile that can intercept aerial targets out to eight kilometers. The 2023 updated version of the Karrar can carry a 500-pound munition, though it is unclear whether Hezbollah has this upgrade.

The large spectrum of commercially available drones and their rapidly evolving applications, seen in both Ukraine and the Middle East, complicate any firm projections of their use by Hezbollah. The group continues to test new applications for its existing UAS capabilities. In one unprecedented drone attack on May 16, Hezbollah launched unguided Soviet-era rockets from an Ababil-T towards a ground target in Israel before the UAS itself crashed into a target. When combined with unguided rockets and traditional PGMs, Hezbollah can use UAS as another means of attempting to overwhelm Israeli defenses.

Tunnels and human shields

In a major war with Hezbollah, the IDF believes that it will not be able to rely on its defenses alone to protect Israelis and will need to conduct a large-scale offensive campaign in Lebanon to strike rocket and PGM sites before Hezbollah’s munitions can be launched. That effort will be complicated by Hezbollah’s network of underground tunnels in southern Lebanon that can facilitate the movement of operatives, weapons, and equipment within Lebanon as well as infiltration into Israel. In December 2018, the IDF uncovered six major tunnels that UNIFIL confirmed Hezbollah built along and across the Blue Line.

Major Tal Be’eri from the Alma Research Center, which has been studying Hezbollah’s tunnel networks since 2018, assessed in April 2024 that Hezbollah has “hundreds of kilometers of underground facilities excavated into the hard rock — much more dangerous, deeper, wider, and more difficult to unravel and destroy than anything we have come across in the Gaza Strip in recent months.”

These tunnels include command and control facilities, logistics depots, field clinics, shafts for concealed missile launchers, and room for small and medium vehicular traffic. A former head of the Lebanon Branch of the IDF Northern Command warned that Hezbollah’s tunnels lead between civilian villages within Lebanon and can include railways for heavy equipment transportation. The IDF launched Operation Northern Shield to destroy these tunnels in December 2018, but Hezbollah continues to leverage underground facilities for its operations.

Unfortunately, Hezbollah likely believes events in Gaza demonstrate the utility of “human shields” in a political warfare strategy intended to vilify and isolate Israel and create controversy around security assistance to Israel. According to the IDF, Hezbollah systematically embeds itself into civilian populations, including “hundreds of arms depots, thousands of militants, and tens of thousands of rockets” in communities throughout southern Lebanon as well as densely populated areas like Beirut.

Human Rights Watch, often a vocal critic of Israel, noted that during the 2006 Lebanon war, “Hezbollah fired rockets from within populated areas, allowed its combatants to mix with the Lebanese civilian population, or stored weapons in populated civilian areas.” An October 2023 video of rocket launches against an IDF base from an active Lebanese high school illustrates Hezbollah’s continued employment of a human-shield strategy. In addition to civilians, Hezbollah has also reportedly used UN and Lebanese Armed Forces positions as shields to limit IDF interdiction and counter-fire options.

 A complex arsenal

Hezbollah has used the years since the 2006 Lebanon War to build and acquire a formidable arsenal of rockets and missiles of increasing size, range, precision, and lethality and incorporated lessons learned from Russia’s War on Ukraine to refine its drone warfare practices.

For a decade, Nasrallah has bragged about Hezbollah’s arsenal and increasingly signaled his intent to use the new and expanding capabilities to target Israel’s strategic sites and population centers. Hezbollah has established an extensive tunnel network for purposes of force protection, mobility, and lethality. The terror group has also used human shields to complicate Israel’s interdiction of Hezbollah’s PGM program.

This analysis of Hezbollah’s arsenal suggests that a major war with the terrorist organization could present serious challenges for Israel, underscoring its urgent need for sufficient air and missile defense capacity and a large stockpile of PGMs. If Israel lacks either, it could increase civilian casualties on both sides of the Blue Line when the war comes.

Bradley Bowman is the senior director of FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP), Dr. Lydia LaFavor is a research fellow at FDD’s CMPP, and Cameron McMillan is a research analyst FDD’s CMPP.

Issues:

Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Israel at War Lebanon Military and Political Power