Sunday, July 23, 2006

Another dip in the quagmire

It seems that, after a week's bombing to get in the mood, the Israeli army is going back into southern Lebanon. What are they trying to achieve? A question that could have been asked all week, but one that gains force with this escalation. Everyone's talking about either "clearing a one-mile strip" along the border of Hezbollah rocket launchers, which cannot be true because it's completely pointless, or else going north to the line of the River Litani (not the Lipari as Jamie K called it, although a brief holiday in Italy seems a far better idea).

The Israelis did that in 1978, indeed they called that invasion Operation LITANI so that the enemy would be in no doubt as to their objective. Reaching it without breaking sweat, and having bombed the hell out of everyone and everything in their path, they found surprisingly enough that the enemy of the day - Fatah - had retreated over it. There is no reason to think that Hezbollah won't do the same, having made a token resistance. The difference is, though, that in 1978 going to the Litani at least transferred the risk from Katyusha rockets from civilians in northern Israel to the soldiers, so long as they stayed there. Now, it seems, the increased rocket range means that Hezbollah's self-declared insecurity zone 30 kilometres into Israel can be maintained from beyond the river.

This scenario may not sound very much like the strategy of a militia determined to challenge the most powerful army in the Middle East, but a couple of points militate against this. For a start, this is Lebanon and Lebanese warlords do not cling to principle when to do so is inconvenient. Hezbollah's interests are served by what would be described at sea as a fleet-in-being strategy, that is to say one that conserves their deterrent capability against the other parties in Lebanon and their northern Israeli insecurity zone. The second point is their stockpile of ATGWs, anti-tank guided weapons.

I predict that these will be this year's surprise hit in the armoury, rather like RPGs were in 2004. If you're not familiar, it's basically a longer-ranged anti-tank rocket with some means of control so it can be shot in a straight line. The first ones to be fielded were the French SS10 and 11, oddly enough, at Suez in 1956 and (unofficially) on Israeli light armour in 1967. Their big success came later, though, with the Soviet AT-3 SAGGER. This missile was used in large numbers by the Egyptian army at the crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973, allowing their infantry to hold off the first Israeli armoured counter-attacks. In Vietnam, it made an appearance with the North Vietnamese army in the 1972 Easter offensive, where the Western answer (the US TOW missile) was also fielded for the first time. By the 1980s, with the arrival of large numbers of the things, a serious reassessment of the NATO-Warsaw Pact balance was in progress.

This wasn't, as far as I can tell, widely realised at the time. The increased confidence of the NATO armies that they could at least force a negotiating pause on the Soviet forces in Germany had at least as much and probably more to do with infantry anti-tank weapons than the more widely publicised issue of tactical nuclear warfare. If small groups of infantry or recce personnel with wheeled vehicles and wire-guided missiles could take advantage of the growing urban sprawl between towns, the Soviet advance might be much slower and bloodier than expected even before the armoured battle began. The West German army in particular laid in large stocks of the rockets and trained its soldiers to aim for tanks with extra radio aerials - an indicator that they contained commanders.

So did Hezbollah. During the 1982-2000 occupation, they began to use more and more of these weapons, usually to attack fortified outposts from a safe distance as the Israelis kept off the roads towards the end.

This is what the Israelis face. Small teams of tank killers covering the main force's getaway up the Litani valley towards the Beka'a, giving the prospect of quite a lot of tanks being destroyed for little result. Therefore, there will be a strong temptation to double or quits - try to cut off the retreat, which means going further into Lebanon, and then keep going towards the Beka'a or south Beirut, which means much more blood.

No doubt they will blame one state sponsor or other. Which is ironic, because if Iran really did give Hezbollah ATGWs, they...well...might well be any left over from the TOWs supplied to Iran in the 1980s by the United States, and Israel. One of the biggest categories of Iran-Contra stores was more rounds for the TOW launchers the Shah's arsenal included, the Iranians having fired them all into Saddam's tanks. This is pure snark, though. It doesn't really matter very much where they came from originally, as the market in arms is global as few things are. ATGWs are highly smugglable - a key feature is that they must be man-portable, and if you can carry something on your back you can fit quite a few in a shipping container. That is, of course, what the founder of modern rocketry promised back in 1770-odd. Sir William Congreve claimed his rockets were the soule of Artillery without the body.

Not that his were very effective - they didn't have much benefit over horse artillery, and didn't pack enough punch to be used as siege artillery, and were mostly used to frighten undisciplined colonial enemies unused to modern warfare - an early form of non-lethal weaponry, really. But it eventually arrived. Among the numerous variants of the Soviet katyusha, Grad, FROG and other artillery rocket systems, there are several that consist of the multiple launch tubes broken down into singles that can be carried, specifically designed for guerrilla use. (The Vietnamese invented this, re-purposing the 107mm and 122mm rockets to be fired from a wooden frame. The Soviet Union mass-produced the idea as, I think, the 9K51-P.)

Rockets don't have to come from Iran, either. Ask the Black Watch - just off for their third tour in Iraq, two weeks after the Government denied it! - about their stint at Camp "Incoming" the winter of 2004. Grad MRLs are in use with some 50 countries, so they could come from almost anywhere. But the large sandy one with a civil war, vast ammunition stockpiles and no effective government that was exporting surplus military equipment via Beirut until last year cannot be ruled out.

Correction: the AT-3's NATO designation is SAGGER, not "Snagger". Good GlobalSec page on it here.

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