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Hizbollah's warning flight

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The insurgency in Iraq continues to show itself capable of multiple bombings, repeated armed assaults on Iraqi police units, assassination and kidnappings. The last week has seen a spate of relentless attacks that have inflicted a death toll in the hundreds.

In the first five days of May alone, insurgents killed twenty-five people and wounded eighty in a bomb attack at the funeral of a Kurdish official in Tal Afar, near Mosul; killed sixty people and wounded 150 in an attack on a police recruiting centre in the Kurdish city of Irbil; and undertook a spate of bombings and shootings in Baghdad that left at least twenty-three people dead and many more wounded.

The scale of violence has overshadowed the formation of a new Iraqi government on 3 May after prolonged negotiations.

The Israeli example

It is obvious that the United States occupation forces – despite the overwhelming superiority in conventional military firepower available to them – are unable to control the insurgency. The undertrained and overstretched Iraqi security forces offer little help. It is becoming clear that the insurgency is too deep-rooted and pervasive to be defeated by the usual American counter-insurgency tactics, and the repeated use of heavy firepower in urban areas, including yet more air-strikes in recent days, is doing little more than deepening hostility to occupation as the “collateral” casualties increase.

More generally, senior US military are now acknowledging that overstretch in the army as a result of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (where a US air-strike killed seven people, including three civilians, on 29 April) means that it will be more difficult for the US to prevail against new threats. This in itself does not guarantee US failure, but as one senior defense department official comments: “The assessment is that we would succeed, but there would be higher casualties and more collateral damage… We would have to win uglier” (see Mark Mazzetti, “Iraq, Afghanistan Wars Preventing Proactive Moves”, Los Angeles Times, 2 May 2005).

This overstretch has led the US military to deal with the Iraqi insurgency by borrowing some of the tactics, weapons and surveillance equipment developed by the Israelis in their conflict with the Palestinians. The response has proved counterproductive inasmuch as many people across the region view linkage of this kind between the US and Israel as evidence of a strategic alliance they wish to challenge.

From a US military perception, this is a necessary risk that must be balanced against the belief that thirty-eight years of experience of occupying Palestinian territory (since 1967) provides the Israelis with much to offer Washington. Many US strategists would also argue that from a strictly military point of view, Israel’s occupation has been largely successful.

Others would claim that Ariel Sharon’s planned withdrawal from Gaza has far less to do with negotiating peace with the Palestinians than with extricating Israeli forces from a difficult military situation, and countering the demographic risk of an eventual Palestinian majority in the territory of “greater Israel”. In this light, the “separation wall” now being built around much of the West Bank would be seen not simply as a “land grab” to pre-empt a viable Palestinian state, but as a response to the insecurity engendered by suicide bombings.

Paul Rogers discusses the United States-Israel connection in earlier columns of his openDemocracy weekly series:

Perception and reality in the ‘war on terror’” (December 2003)

An Iraqi intifada” (April 2004)

Iraq’s Israeli factor” (July 2004)

If you find Paul Rogers’s analyses valuable, please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation

Whatever lessons Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians are seen to offer, US forces have worked closely with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and Israeli defence companies during their two years of occupation of Iraq, especially since the insurgency became more deeply embedded around the autumn of 2003. It is an understandable approach for a worried US military leadership, given their perception of an elite and successful Israeli army; but a recent event has thrown it into sharp relief.

Sign on the wind

In 1992, a perceptive analysis by former US Navy submarine captain Roger Barnett addressed the post-cold war impact of high-technology weapons on the ability – and thus the willingness – of the weak to take up arms against the strong (see Roger W Barnett, “Regional Conflict: Requires Naval Forces”, Proceedings of the US Naval Institute, June 1992).

An incident in northern Israel, almost entirely unnoticed outside the country, presents a classic example of the phenomenon Barnett identified. It has also caused consternation within the Israeli Defence Forces.

In November 2004, a Hizbollah unit in southern Lebanon launched a small robotic aircraft fitted with a video camera. It crossed the border into Israel and flew for a few miles over Israeli territory before crashing into the sea. The incident was extremely worrying to Israeli officials, who responded by making preparations for further incursions, not least with their extensive system of early-warning devices along the border.

On 11 April 2005, Hizbollah tried again, this time with much greater success (“Hezbollah Mirsad-1 UAV Penetrates Israeli Air Defenses”, Defense Industry Daily, 20 April 2005). On this occasion, another robotic aircraft (probably a Mohajer-4) flew a thirty-kilometre round trip at about 200 kilometres per hour and at an altitude of 300 metres. By the time the IDF had scrambled fighters and helicopters to intercept the drone it had already returned safely to its launch point in southern Lebanon, having flown over numerous settlements and the coastal town of Nahariya, north of Haifa.

According to Defense News (18 April 2005):

“The embarrassing episode was rendered all the more egregious since the Israeli military intelligence had advanced warning of an impending Hizbollah operation. Nevertheless it was local residents – rather than Israel’s elaborate, overlapping sensor-fused early warning network – that first reported the offending unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).”

Three elements make this specific incident highly problematic for Israel. First, the IDF has been hugely active in surveillance operations over southern Lebanon prior to the overflight, involving as many as eighty breaches of Lebanese territory, yet Hizbollah was still able to conduct this operation. Second, the UAV used was not particularly sophisticated – it had few if any “stealth” characteristics and flew high rather than at a ground-hugging flight-path under radar screens. Third, the UAV was built by Iran’s state-owned Qods Aviation Industries, revealing once more the close connection between Hizbollah and Iran.

The implications are serious. As Defense News says:

“Hizbollah demonstrated that any nation – even those with sophisticated, state-of-the-art, layered air defense systems – is vulnerable to attack by inexpensive, low-tech weapons that could be armed and dangerous.”

The Mohajer-4 is relatively small, weighing about 300 kilograms and with a maximum payload unlikely to be more than 100 kilograms. A stealthier variant could certainly be developed with radar-absorbing surfaces, a radar-resistant geometry, ground-hugging capabilities and a larger payload. If it carried even cluster munitions, let alone a chemical-weapon payload, such a system could have a formidable effect and would render Israel’s heavily-protected border with Lebanon – let alone the new wall around the West Bank – something of an irrelevance.

Israel can seek to counter the use of UAVs by Hizbollah through pre-emptive military action, but little short of a reoccupation of parts of southern Lebanon would be enough.

In a broader context, the Mohajer-4 incident is just another example of the potential for asymmetric warfare, one with implications for United States forces in Iraq as much as for the Israelis. It also emphasises the need to address the underlying causes of the insecurity they are attempting to subdue. This would entail necessary changes in policy, and it is possible that the call for these will come first from the military rather than politicians.

The call may not come in the near future, but when it does, the short flight of the Mohajer-4 over northern Israel in April 2005 could be seen as the precursor of a fundamental shift.


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