August 01, 2006

Of steel balls

A lot has been made of this picture. Human Rights Watch has even posted press information condemning the Hezbollah use of "ball bearings" in their rocket attacks.

The usual suspects have joined in. "You won't see this kind of weapon in the arsenal of any civilized country," the deputy head of the police bomb disposal unit told Newsmax. "Certainly not with Israel or the United States."

Not to contradict HRW, but the use of an outer shell of steel balls is pretty much standard in the Chinese-made 122mm and 107mm artillery rockets that form the bulk of Hezbollah's arsenal. Good pic showing the steel balls here. Hezbollah probably didn't modify their weapons: they were fired as they came out of the packing, probably. And it's not just them. Any anti-personnel warhead described as "prefragmented," "enhanced fragmentation" or "blast fragmentation" generally has a outer casting filled with small steel balls or similar castings. This one, for instance. Or this one. Against people in the open these weapons have a significantly wider damage radius than a similar weight of high-explosive would have. (On the other hand, against an enemy with good cover they're practically useless, as the British found on the first day of the Somme.)

This is not new, either. The original "shrapnel" round was an 1803 British weapon combining a lot of small balls and a fuzed bursting charge, exploding in the air over advancing troops, and named after its inventor, Henry Shrapnel. (During World War One, the term was redefined in common practice to any debris from an exploding artillery shell.)

Hezbollah's crime here is not using anti-personnel weapons per se, but using those weapons indiscriminately against civilians. That should be sufficient. Their choice of weapon to do so is neither particularly novel, uncommon nor surprising.

UPDATE: The actual PowerPoint, of a single Hezbollah rocket's impact in Haifa on July 17, is worth going through. Six Israelis were wounded in this attack, believed to be from a single 240mm Fajr-3 warhead. The peppered car appears to have been directly underneath the wall that was hit, perhaps 1-2 m under the impact point: the picture is taken after the debris from the building was removed from the car (it's the car with the open hatchback in other photos in the series). Note also the photos of the wall and a car in a garage directly across the street from the impact point, showing the impact and spread of the steel balls and other shrapnel at a longer range. The tradeoff for high explosive vs. anti-personnel (steel ball) warheads is the balls subtract significantly from the size of the explosive charge. However, regardless of the type of warhead, if you were standing where that car was when the 240mm rocket warhead exploded next to you, you'd still be quite dead. The hood vividly shows another downside of these weapons that so bedevilled the British artillerymen in 1916: a lot of the balls shoot straight into the ground (or in this case, car hood) directly beneath the point of impact, and relatively few shoot off horizontally to do damage outside of the immediate impact area.

Posted by BruceR at 02:02 PM

Back to those Zelzal-2s

So why has the 2006 Lebanon War unfolded the way it did?

You have to assume that Hezbollah's initial attack was an opportunistic attempt to prove its continued relevance and aid Hamas by a POW-seizure of its own. They didn't plan anything much more than that, and they clearly didn't expect the reaction they got.

Israel's apparent over-response had obviously been in the offing for a while... there was something of waiting for a pretext about it. A major strategic aim had to be to knock out Hezbollah's longest-range and heaviest weapons, those Zelzal-2s, which up until now were the predominant thing Israel (and the United States) had to worry about in case of a pre-emptive strike on their part against Iran. The Zelzal-2s, able to reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and capable of at least theoretically carrying chemical warheads, were as potentially as useful a deterrent on future action against Iran as Soviet MRBMs in Cuba would have been in the 1960s for the Khruschev regime. So they had to go. Without them, Hezbollah's ability in the short term to immediately counter-strike Israel in case of an attack on Iran will be greatly diminished.

That's in part why the Israeli attacks could not be limited to South Lebanon. The heaviest artillery rockets are in those fixed positions in the Bekaa. (By comparison, the Zelzal-2 -- in Russian service, NATO used to call it the Frog-7 -- has a 600 kg warhead. The next-largest artillery rockets, the Fajr-3's and Fajr-5's that Hezbollah was actually using last month for its deep strikes, have 45 kg and 90 kg warheads.)

One has to assume, based on the fact they haven't been fired yet despite a serious threat to Hezbollah itself, that the Zelzal-2s are being held in a sort of "dual-key" arrangement with Iran. Unlike the other rockets, these are literal block-busters if they hit. (Again, to give some points of comparison, the modified Scud missiles that Iraq used against Israel in 1991 had a 500 kg warhead; the V2 rockets that fell on London in 1944-45 had a 1000 kg warhead.)

Assuming Israel has succeeded in largely eliminating those weapons, and if it can get any kind of a strengthened multinational observer force into Lebanon to prevent them coming back (or at least knowing when they do and where they are), they will gain significantly more freedom to operate against Iran's nuclear facilities over at least the next couple years. This is also obviously to America's benefit.

Hezbollah's choice to completely stop firing their rockets at the first sign of a ceasefire Sunday is a subtle sign of perceived weakness at this point... either on their part or more probably, Iran's. Providing he stays alive, Sheikh Nasrallah should only be able to benefit the longer the air-only war continued. But Iran may be rapidly losing its primary strategic deterrent to the missile plinkers of the Heyl Ha'Avir, and as a consequence is possibly encouraging Hezbollah to take up any reasonable truce offer.

UPDATE: The other big statistic for rockets, besides warhead, is CEP (circular error probable): the circle around the target within which the missile will fall 50% of the time. Some CEPs:

V2 rocket against London (1944-45): 17000m
Iraqi "Al-Husayn" Scud on Israel (1991): >1500m
Zelzal-2 rocket fired from Bekaa Valley into Tel Aviv/Jerusalem (estimated): 700m

So unlike the Iraqi Al-Husayn missile, the Hezbollah Zelzals would have a high probability of hitting a city centre they were aimed at. Combine that with about 20% greater destructive force over the Al-Husayn Scud, and one could anticipate significant Israeli casualties even with conventional weapons if they were ever to be used. Iran also may have an elevated respect for these weapons due to their use in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War against them. During that war, Iraq fired 189 Al-Husayn-model Scuds into Tehran, Isfahan, and Qom, killing 2000 Iranians and wounding another 6000: an average of 10.5 deaths per rocket.

As the V2 offensive on London and Antwerp showed, however, that figure minimizes a huge potential for a lucky hit to cause enormous casualties. The V2 average number of people killed in the England attacks was only around 5 per rocket, but possibly the largest single death toll from a rocket attack came with the Dec. 16, 1944 destruction of the Rex Cinema in Antwerp by a V2, killing 567 civilians and off-duty soldiers. The chance of a similar mass casualty strike on Israel, assuming a significant number of Zelzal-2 rockets remain in the Bekaa at the end of all this, has to be judged as significant: which is, of course, why Iran put them there, and why they're a good deterrent on full Israeli and American freedom of action in the region.

CAVEAT: The other possible reason, of course, that Hezbollah has not fired any Zelzal rockets yet, is because Iran never gave them any, and Hezbollah suggestions starting in late 2002 that they could now reach any place in Israel with their missiles were either untrue or misconstrued.

Posted by BruceR at 11:00 AM