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  • Ari Sacher

The Tipping Point in the North; A Powder Keg of Catastrophe




Israel Update – Week of March 4, 2024


New Hezbollah Weapons Threaten Israel: Since October 7, Israel has been fighting wars on two fronts. Some would argue that this number should be larger. On its southern flank, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) faces the Hamas, a Sunni Iranian proxy terror organization responsible for the October 7 massacre in which more than 1,200 Israelis were brutally murdered and more than 240 taken hostage. On its northern front, Israel faces the Hezbollah, a Shiite Iranian proxy, an organization that for all intents and purposes is the ruling power in Lebanon. The war in the north is being fought at a much lower intensity than in the south. The Hezbollah seems content to fire a few rockets and an Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) or two into Israel on a daily basis. The IDF seems content to return fire, either with artillery shells or with guided missiles launched by manned and unmanned aircraft. 


The Hezbollah is a powerful and consequential force, significantly larger and better equipped than the Hamas. According to open sources, the Hezbollah possesses 150,000 rockets, some of them equipped with GPS guidance systems. They also possess a large number of Russian Kornet laser-guided ATGMs, some with ranges of greater than 10 kilometers. According to open sources, over the past few years, Israel has bombed shipments of even more modern weapon systems that Iran has been trying to smuggle into Lebanon. 


From the looks of things, Israel has largely been successful. The northern war continues to simmer, never actually boiling over. Neither side seems particularly interested in a larger conflagration. Nevertheless, over the past few months, the Hezbollah has revealed as part of its arsenal two new Iranian weapon systems that are game changers: the Almas ATGM and the 358 Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM). 


Almas: More than twenty years ago, Israel developed an ATGM called “SPIKE-LR”. SPIKE-LR is an electro-optically guided missile. It has a television seeker that can operate day and night, rain or shine. The missile beams back the seeker image to the operator via a fiber-optic data link thinner than a human hair. The operator, armed with a video screen and a joystick, locates the target in the image and locks the seeker on it. As the missile flies towards the target, target features become more prominent, and the operator can refine his lock point. For instance, at launch, the operator sees a building. Then individual floors come into view and then individual windows. The operator controls the missile all the way until target impact and can thus hit the target with incredible accuracy. I have seen one flight test in which the missile was aimed at a circle of the same diameter as the missile, and the missile flew right through the circle. The only evidence that a missile had passed by were the slits around the circle where the missile’s wings were.

 

Legend has it that in the 2006 Lebanon War, an IDF Unit using SPIKE-LR came under intense Hezbollah fire and had to move so quickly that they were forced to jettison their missiles. The IDF subsequently bombed the area to destroy the “evidence,” but apparently at least one missile survived the strike and made its way to Iran. Iranian engineers successfully reverse-engineered the missile, calling it “Almas” (“Diamond”). Not only did the Iranians copy the missile, they improved it. If you can believe what you read on the internet, Almas has a range significantly greater than SPIKE-LR: While the Israeli missile has a range of 4 kilometers, the Iranian copy has more than doubled the range. It is rumored that a larger and longer-range variant has also been developed and that the missile can be launched remotely and from a drone



The IDF is being extremely tight-lipped about the existence of Almas and its performance. According to Hezbollah, Almas has been used multiple times to strike sensitive Israeli targets including the Air Traffic Control Center (ATCC) on Mount Meron. In a video released by Hezbollah, the missile climbs above the ATCC, clearly revealing its various radars. The seeker locks onto one of them and homes in on it. Another video angle clearly shows the radar exploding. It is unclear whether the videos are real or fake, but to this Israeli, it is a disturbing wakeup call. 


If the Hezbollah does have the Almas, the IDF must quickly change the way it does business. The reason is that a laser-guided ATGM like the Kornet can hit only what the operator can see, and its precision is limited, especially at maximum range and during rain and clouds that adversely affect the laser beam. Missiles like SPIKE-LR (now SPIKE-LR2) and Almas are immune to rain and are equally effective at all ranges. They can also hit targets that the operator cannot see at launch. If the IDF rule of thumb with Kornet was “If he can see you, then he can kill you,” the new rule is “If you are in his range, then he can kill you.” To paraphrase the popular Israeli Waze navigation application, it is time to recalculate our route. 


The 358 Missile: The IDF defense posture on the northern front is based to a large extent upon complete Israeli dominance of the skies over Lebanon. Israeli manned and unmanned aircraft can fly over Lebanon nearly at will, as long as they fly high enough to avoid small-arms fire, about 3,000 feet above the ground. This capability gives the IDF persistent reconnaissance (eyes always on the target) and the ability to quickly close the sensor-to-shooter look (taking out a target soon after it is discovered). The Hezbollah have no Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) that seriously threaten Israeli aircraft. Even if the Hozbollah did, as soon as a missile would be launched, the IDF would quickly locate and destroy the launcher. But according to sources on the internet, a radical new SAM has entered the arena, the Iranian 358, or Saqr (Hawk) missile. The 358 missile first emerged in 2019 after some of them were seized by the U.S. Navy in the course of operations to disrupt the flow of weapons and other material to Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. More of these missiles have since been found by U.S. and other military forces while seizing Iranian arms shipments bound for Yemen. According to Israeli experts, the 358 has been effective in downing Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs), including an American MQ-9 Reaper over Yemen.


The 358 is a “UAV killer,” conceptually based on an American missile called the Coyote Block 2, made by Raytheon. Like the Coyote, the 358 is designed to intercept specifically UAVs. The average UAV flies slowly and does not maneuver, making it a much easier target to intercept than a fighter bomber or a rocket. The 358 has a jet engine that allows it to loiter for lengthy periods of time in the area it is assigned to protect. The jet engine gives it considerable range, meaning that the missile can be launched at a large distance from the area it is assigned to protect, making prosecution of the launcher extremely difficult. It flies around performing “lazy-eights” in the sky until it identifies a target with its electro-optical television seeker or until its fuel runs out, whatever comes first. When a target is located, the missile accelerates and streaks toward it. The 358 is equipped with a powerful warhead that detonates when the missile is in close proximity to the target, decimating it. Unlike a manned aircraft,  a UAV cannot perform evasive maneuvers and because the 358 flies faster than most UAVs, most of its intercepts are successful. 


On February 26, 2024, Hezbollah claims that it shot down an Israeli Hermes-450 UAV that was flying high over Lebanon, most likely with a 358. According to unclassified sources, Israeli Air Defence realized that the Hermes-450 was under attack and fired a David’s Sling “Stunner” interceptor to shoot down the 358. The Hezbollah then fired another 358, destroying the Israeli UAV. 



The 358 is truly a game changer. If Israel cannot maintain air dominance over Lebanon, if it cannot see what Hezbollah is doing and stop them from doing it, then the situation could become untenable. According to Yair Ramati, the former head of Israel’s Missile Defence Organization (IMDO), “Any erosion of air dominance could prove to be a critical development in Western power projection capabilities, especially in the utilization of Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAVs. Similar lessons were learned by both sides in the Ukraine-Russia war.” 


Hezbollah and the IDF are at a tipping point.

One small change, one minor miscalculation, one errant missile could send the region into a catastrophic war in which both sides would pay a very high price. Almas and 358 move the region one step closer to the brink.


Good things,

Ari Sacher

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