Watching the development of the story concerning Hezbollah and Scud missiles has been an object lesson in how speculation can be spun into established fact. I first heard the rumor from sources in Washington about three weeks before the story was broken in Kuwait’s Al Rai Al Aam. The newspaper essentially claimed that Syria had transferred Scud rockets to Hezbollah. Israel, it continued, had come close to bombing an arms convoy, but deferred at the last moment due to American promises to diplomatically push the issue with the Syrians.
The Al Rai Al Aam piece was followed a day later by a larger story in The Wall Street Journal, which covered much of the same ground but included confirmation on the Scud transfer from an American source.
Yet for all the fuss it has generated, details of the alleged transfer are unclear and have become mired in conflicting intelligence information, and Israeli officials have been uncharacteristically reticent in discussing the allegations. It remains unknown which variety of Scud is alleged to have been transferred, whether the rockets have entered Lebanon, whether they remain in Syria but in Hezbollah’s hands, or whether Hezbollah personnel have been trained on the systems only. Syria’s most advanced Scud is believed to be the Scud D, a Syrian-manufactured copy of a North Korean version of the original Russian rocket.
Even the American State Department hesitated to confirm the allegation in an otherwise strongly-worded statement regarding how the number two at the Syrian embassy in Washington had been summoned for a finger-wagging interview-without-coffee. The next day, the State Department admitted it was unsure that the Scuds had been delivered to Hezbollah in the first place.
Nonetheless, though no evidence has been provided, one can be sure that six months from now it will have become an accepted fact that Hezbollah has Scud rockets.
It is true that since the end of the 34-day war with Israel in 2006, Hezbollah has sought to bolster its arsenal with larger rocket systems with increased range and, crucially, fitted with guidance systems allowing it to strike strategic targets in Israel, such as military bases, airfields and industrial sites in the event of another conflict.
Military analysts believe that Hezbollah has received the M600 rocket, thought to be a Syrian clone of the Iranian Fateh-110, which can carry a 500-kilogram warhead 250 kilometers, far enough for Hezbollah to hit Tel Aviv from its camouflaged bases in the northern Bekaa Valley.
Yet, the acquisition of Scud rockets would present a formidable logistical challenge to Hezbollah, including smuggling the 13.5 meter rocket — almost double the length of the M600 — across the Lebanon-Syria border, which, with numerous countries’ intelligence agencies keeping an eye on who or what passes through, is one of the most closely scrutinized frontiers in the world.
Given the capabilities of the M600, it is unclear why Hezbollah would seek to augment its arsenal with the high-signature Scud. The Syrian Scud D variant has a range almost three times that of the M600 but the size of the warhead is the same and the additional range may not be an important requirement for Hezbollah, given the new emphasis on accuracy and the comparative lack of strategic targets south of Tel Aviv.
An additional drawback for Hezbollah is that the Scud is liquid-fuelled, which complicates handling, storage, deployment and firing compared to the solid-fuel rockets in its arsenal. Solid fuelled rockets require no lengthy preparation process and can be launched quickly, a key requisite for Hezbollah, which is ever wary of Israel’s aerial dominance. The Scud, however, requires fuelling just prior to launching, which can take 45 minutes even in ideal conditions, let alone in a war. The propellants used are highly toxic and have to be stored and handled by trained operators.
Unlike Hezbollah’s other rockets, which can be fired from jerry-rigged launchers, Scuds are launched from specially-designed vehicles called Transporter-Erector-Launchers (TEL). Bringing these into Lebanon undetected would pose no small challenge for Hezbollah. All in all, if I was Hezbollah’s armaments procurement officer and someone offered me Scuds, I think I would be inclined to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
NICHOLAS BLANDFORD is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, The Times of London and Jane’s Defense Weekly