The Technology of War
In their current conflict, both Israel and Hizbullah have employed a surprising array of weapons. Israel has fought Lebanese guerrillas of one stripe or another for decades, but the latest war has allowed both sides to showcase weapons not usually seen on this battlefield.
Human Rights Watch photographed piles of cluster artillery shells on the border with Lebanon this week after NEWSWEEK reported that an Israeli reservist said artillery units had begun using the controversial armaments to destroy Hizbullah rocket launchers.
(Human Rights Watch field workers crawled through a meadow and used long-range lenses to photograph an artillery position in northern Israel from where the munitions were being fired. Israel won’t comment on the weapons it is using in Lebanon.)
Cluster shells are large munitions that explode in the air, scattering hundreds of small bomblets across a wide radius.
Military analysts say Israel has added the weapon to its arsenal because militants who launch rockets at the Jewish state are constantly moving, making them hard to target with a pinpoint strike.
“Clusters munitions happen to be fairly good at getting people who use rocket launchers,” says David Isby, a Washington-based defense and foreign-policy consultant. “They cover a large area, and it’s hard to hide from them.”
But because of their wide dispersal, cluster munitions tend to cause more civilian casualties than other armaments. And they have a high dud rate, which means civilians might set off the unexploded bomblets months or years after the end of fighting. Israel, under pressure from the United States, had not used cluster munitions in Lebanon since 1982. But the United States itself has made wide use of clusters in Kosovo and Iraq, setting back efforts to impose an international ban. “We came to the conclusion that the use of cluster munitions caused more civilian casualties than any other weapons system in Iraq during the three weeks of major fighting,” says Steve Goose, who directs the arms division of Human Rights Watch.
For military analysts, the biggest surprise of the war has been Hizbullah’s July 15 missile strike on an Israeli warship off Lebanon’s coast that killed four sailors. Israeli officials said the attack marked the first time Hizbullah had used a guided missile, and they speculated that the Lebanese Army had provided the group with radar data on the location of the warship. So unanticipated was the attack that the Israeli ship had not activated its missile-defense system.
The weapon was identified as a C-802, a missile made in China and imported by Iran during the 1990s. The missile carries its own internal-guidance system, which kicks in during the last stage of flight and helps the missile hone in on its target. Steve Zaloga, a defense analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group, said he was surprised the missile did not destroy the entire ship. “It has a large warhead, and it also has fuel that gets sprayed on the engine of the ship and can cause a very large fire,” he said. “It may be that the missile failed.” Zaloga said firing the C-802 is a complicated task that requires extensive training. “It’s not something you just give to the boy scouts. It takes several months of training and an awful lot of prep work.”
Lebanon has accused Israel of firing white-phosphorous artillery shells at towns in the south. Phosphorous shells are usually used for illuminating the battlefield. When shot directly at a target, they can cause deadly fires. Israel has not responded to the allegation, and rights group say they cannot determine yet if the shells are being used. The United States was heavily criticized for using white phosphorous in its Fallujah battle of November 2004. “There was a big scandal with the use of phosphorous shells against civilians,” says Goose of Human Rights Watch. “If you’re using it against a human target, you’re going to incinerate the person.”
Israel says Hizbullah has at least one unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can be packed with explosives and crashed on a military or civilian site. Analysts say a UAV could find targets much more accurately than the rockets Hizbullah has been firing and could reach deeper into Israeli territory. The weapon, if it exists, so far remains unused.