Hizbullah’s new approach

Mina Adel, Tuesday 21 May 2024

Will Hizbullah manage to alter the rules of the game vis-á-vis Israel, Mina Adel asks

Hizbullah s new approach


In mid-May, many users of the X platform published a video of two young Palestinians monitoring an Israeli reconnaissance quadcopter drone. This was probably a Wolverine-ISR, manufactured by the Israeli company Xtend. One of the two young men hit the drone with an outdated hand-held slingshot and it immediately fell, recalling the Old Testament story of David and Goliath. The young man was able to shoot down a drone worth more than $3,000 with one small stone, showing how imperfections in powerful military technology can be exploited.

After two days, Israeli planes carried out a strike on Hizbullah targets in southern Lebanon, destroying a building near Najariya. The next day, civilians discovered the remains of Iranian Sayyad-2C air defence missiles, which are deployed in conjunction with Iranian Khordad SAM system (Iran’s version of the Russian BUK system), which was used by Iran’s air defence units to shoot down US navy MQ-4 triton drones in 2019. Hizbullah now has more than stones with which to challenge Israel’s technological superiority.

The availability of this type of missile is a qualitative leap considering Hizbullah’s continuous reliance on short-range air defence missiles, specifically the Iranian 358 Sakr missiles, which were used to shoot down many Israeli Hermes 450/900 drones. But will it be sufficient?

According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “most of Hizbullah’s anti-air missile systems offer only a relatively small area of protection. They nevertheless force Israeli aircraft to fly at higher altitudes, reducing Israel’s ability to accurately strike ground targets. Israeli policymakers and military officers have consistently reiterated their concerns about Hizbullah acquiring more sophisticated air defences.”

The Israeli concern is reasonable given the importance of Lebanese airspace in attacking Hizbullah and even the Syrian army, since Israeli air dominance must be maintained at whatever cost. That is why convoys of air defence missiles coming from Syria to Hizbullah have always been targeted, and Israel has participated in air exercises such as Onesilos-Gedeon 2020 with the Cypriot air defence, which has a system similar to the Russian BUK.

The Israeli Occupation Forces were surprised not only by the new air defences, but also by the rise in the use of loitering munition Suicide Drones, specifically the latest version capable of launching air-to-ground missiles, which increases its destructive capability, suggesting that Hizbullah will be behaving both offensively and defencively at the same time.

Al-Ahram Weekly spoke to three experts: RAF Air Marshal Greg Bagwell who was the UK’s Joint Force Air Component Commander for many military operations; Mike Mihajlovic, an expert specialising in air defence systems and former air defence operator; and Babak Taghvaee, an aviation expert and the author of several books on the Iranian Air Force.

Ground-based air defence GBAD systems such as Hizbullah’s Sayyad-2 are different from stationary systems, as they have an excellent ability to change their positions immediately following engagement and don’t need a long time to prepare and target aircrafts. Air forces therefore require intensive reconnaissance efforts to find them and they can only be attacked by special aircraft armed with specific ammunition to carry out SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defence) and DEAD (Destruction of Enemy Air Defence) missions.

Bagwell gave a clear explanation: “A SEAD/DEAD mission is hard because of two things. It’s a battle of wits around the electromagnetic spectrum, where the ability to detect and negate the other’s signals is key; then it’s a battle of who can shoot and kill first. Basically it’s a battle between the hunter and the hunted, where those roles can be swapped very quickly. In my experience the aircraft has always had the advantage over the GBAD unit. A GBAD unit is static on the ground and once you can pinpoint its location, everyone gets to know where it is. Whereas a modern fighter is moving quickly and has electronic countermeasures and the ability to manoeuvre and evade attack. The more modern GBAD systems such as S300 and S400 have had longer range detection and missiles which has made them more capable, but these are expensive and highly sophisticated. They can’t be used without significant training.” And they are far from Hizbullah’s reach.

The Israeli Air Force has many aircraft capable of neutralising air defences, the most notable being F-35s, which can penetrate airspace and are hard to track continuously on radar screens. They use their advanced systems to accurately locate and destroy air defences from a distance. F-16 Sufa aircraft are important too. Their pilots have a lot of experience countering the Syrian air defences, with many options for long-range targeting, the most important of these being Delilah missiles and SDB Small-Diameter Bombs, augmented with Skyshield and EL-8222 advanced jamming pods. What, then, is the impact of Hizbullah being able to use the new Iranian air defences?

According to Mihajlovic, “Hizbullah became a true military force, since one component it was missing was medium-range and high-altitude air defence. Sayyad-2 means there are escalation steps with a serious component involved. Having a system is one thing but they need to have properly trained crews, however. IAF will continue with distance strikes, similar to what’s happening in Syria. To be honest, facing the superior IAF is very challenging. On the other hand, Hizbullah can do ambushes and inflict some casualties. They can engage IAF helicopters that fly on the Israeli side of the border. One successful ambush will create a headache and allocation of significant parts of the IAF to secure the borders.”

It seems that Israeli air defences have recently suffered many such headaches as a result of drones attacking Israeli army positions near the Lebanese border, particularly the latest kind capable of carrying out an initial attack with air-to-ground rockets before launching the main suicide attack to cause significant damage. Despite the integration of air defences and sophisticated F16 Sufa and F15 Baz fighters, which shot down many, the IAF appears unable to completely eliminate this danger.

Taghvaee described these drones as such: “Actually, that type of Ababil-T drones is used as an aerial target in Iran. They have no stealth feature. Quite simple, since they did the same in Iran with the Ababil 5 model. In Iran they installed four tubes for launching the Hydra unguided rockets. S5 is also small but not made in Iran, only in Lebanon, because getting S5 rockets from the Syrian army is a lot easier than smuggling Hydra rockets from Iran. The reason that particular Ababil-T managed to fly close to that surveillance post of the IOF was that it was flown from a very close distance. Perhaps just 10 km away, so there’s no time for the IAF to scramble anything together even if they had combat air patrol. Again the distance and the time are so short they can’t reach it. Hizbullah basically used that drone like an anti-tank missile: same distance or range of Almas,” the Iranian version of the Israeli Spike missile.

Mihajlovic added, “Israel doesn’t have an immediate answer to Hizbullah drones. The Israeli army needs to develop a solid countermeasures systems which may be on the way from the USA. On the tactical level, these hits are painful for Israelis because they also often have visual effects showing how guerilla forces can strike a modern army which just a year ago had all the advantages in this area. Hizbullah is a very quick learner and they learned from Israelis as well as from the ongoing war in Ukraine.”

It is clear that we are on the verge of a new escalation on the northern front, with Hizbullah acquiring many advanced systems that, even if they do not alter the stakes much, will cause more embarrassment for Israel’s political leaders who insisted on resuming their military operations in the Gaza Strip while ignoring everyone, including Israeli citizens and even the USA, Israel’s strongest ally.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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