As rocket and missile fire along the Lebanon border has increased in the last week, Hezbollah’s leader says it has new missiles.
Over the weekend, the Associated Press reported that Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah boasted that the militant group used a Burkhan missile against an Israeli military post along the Israel-Lebanon border. If true, the launch would represent use of a new type of missile in Hezbollah’s very large inventory of rocket and missile projectiles.
In 2018, Shaan Shaikh, associate Director and fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Missile Defense Project compiled a report on Hezbollah’s inventory of missiles and rockets, citing its arsenal of 130,000 or more projectiles.
In the years since, Hezbollah has added to that arsenal, receiving clandestine shipments of new missiles and precision guidance kits from Iran via Syria and other routes. As it has traded sporadic volleys with Israel over the past month, Hezbollah has largely held its newer or modified guided missiles back. Its emphasis on these is significant, Shaikh told me during a phone interview last week.
“That’s been a central objective, not just increasing the number of missiles that [Hezbollah] has but their accuracy,” he said.
The reported firing of a Burkhan by Hezbollah illustrates both its acquisition of precision capability and Iranian-based supply. In remarks during a speech last Saturday, Nasrallah said the rocket could carry warheads between 661 and 1,100 pounds (300-500 kg). “You can imagine (what happens) when half a ton of explosives fall on Israeli posts,” he quipped.
The Burkhan-2 is a member of the long-serving Scud family of missiles which the West became familiar with in the first Gulf War. It is based on the Iranian Qiam 1/Scud-C, the Iranian Shahab-2/Scud-C or Scud-D missile and has been in use in Yemen by the Houthis since 2017.
It’s not clear what Burkhan variant Nasrallah was referring to since his comments indicated a short-range projectile. Nonetheless, its ability to target individual Israeli posts with a large warhead illustrates the sort of advanced capability Hezbollah possesses.
In 2019, U.S. military intelligence estimated that the number of Hezbollah rockets/missiles had grown to up to 150,000. While that number has likely grown further, the character of that stockpile is as important.
“I mentioned a reported 130,000 rounds of total missiles [in the 2018 report],” CSIS’ Shaikh observed. “That is divided into various types. A lot of it will be smaller artillery rockets, unguided projectiles used mostly for harassment attacks.”
Among the most numerous projectiles are the familiar 107mm and 122mm Katyusha rockets whose lineage stretches back to Soviet development in WWII. According to the CSIS report, one of the most popular variants in Hezbollah service is the 122 mm 9M22 Grad-type Katyusha. It has a range of approximately 20 km (12.4 mi) while carrying six kilograms (13 lbs) of high explosive or submunitions, both dispersing antipersonnel fragments.
The Katyushas have mostly been used as harassment weapons thus far Shaikh says. During the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War Hezbollah was estimated to hold between 7,000 to 8,000 107 mm and 122 mm Katyushas, numbers that have likely increased with further supplies from Iran including truck-mounted, multi-barrel rocket launchers. These enable Hezbollah to fire salvos of Katyushas into Israel, possibly as diversionary fires to throw off Israeli missile defenses.
At the outset of the current conflict the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said that for the first time, all of its aerial defense systems are working simultaneously. including Iron Dome, David’s Sling, MIM-104 Patriot and Arrow. “All of these provide protection in every layer of aerial defense and enable optimal protection of the Israeli home front,” the IDF added.
This layered defense can discriminate between certain missile types and threats, bypassing interception of what it deems less-damaging projectiles to preserve its magazine of interceptors for more dangerous rounds. These might include the Iranian-developed family of Fajr 3 and Fajr 5 missiles.
Developed from earlier Chinese rockets in the 1990s, the Fajr 3 and 5 have ranges from 26 to 47 miles (43-75 km) with various high explosive warheads. In 2011 the IDF estimated that Hezbollah had a stockpile of several hundred Fajrs, a number that has probably increased.
So too has the effective range and accuracy of the generally short-legged missiles in Hezbollah’s inventory. The Iranian Fateh-110 is an example. This road-mobile ballistic missile is a modified version of the unguided Zelzal-2 (also present in numbers), with the addition of control and guidance systems. An additional Syrian copy of the Fateh-110, the M-600 is in Hezbollah stocks as well.
These satellite-guided missiles carry 1,000 to 1,100 pound (450-500 kg) warheads out to ranges of 155-186 miles (250-300 km), putting Tel Aviv in reach. The number of Fateh/M-600s in Hezbollah hands is unknown but could be in the hundreds.
The surface to surface threat is obvious and one we’ve seen in the last month. Less obvious but as concerning is Hezbollah’s anti-ship missile capability. The best known of these missiles is the C-802, a weapon developed by the Chinese in the 1970s and 1980s. Iran bought dozens of these medium-range anti-ship cruise missiles in the 1990s until U.S. pressure persuaded Beijing to halt sales to Iran.
As became a pattern, Iran developed its own variant called the “Noor” and shipped an undetermined number to Hezbollah. The turbojet powered, high-subsonic, sea-skimming C-802 has a range of 75 miles (120 km) while carrying a 364-pound (165 kg) warhead.
During the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict, a pair of Noors (likely operated by Iranian personnel) were fired from a Lebanese coastal battery at INS Hanit, an Israeli Sa’ar 5-class corvette, killing four Israeli sailors.
Subsequent investigations found that the Corvette didn’t turn on anti-missile systems capable of defending against the missiles because Israeli intelligence did not believe Hezbollah possessed them.
Hezbollah possesses another anti-ship missile of even greater concern to Israel – the Yakhont which was developed by Russia in the 1990s. Ground, air or submarine-launched, the Yakhont has a 186-mile (300 km) range while carrying either a 440-pound (200 kg) high explosive or 550-pound (250 kg) semi-armor piercing warhead.
The basic Yakhont has inertial navigation-based guidance so it can circumvent GPS jamming. The CSIS report says Russia delivered 72 Yakhont missiles to Syria in 2011, along with 18 launch-vehicles. Shipments of more advanced, radar-equipped variants followed in May 2013.
Syria is reported to have transferred a number of those systems to Hezbollah. As of January 2016, U.S. intelligence estimated that Hezbollah had up to 12 Yakhonts, possibly operated with Iranian assistance.
In all, Shaikh and a co-author detailed 12 land attack, five anti-tank, two anti-ship and eight anti-air rockets/missiles in Hezbollah service in 2018. The anti-air munitions included the SA-22 (Pantsyr S1) seen as a continual threat in Ukraine. Tracing what types of projectiles have made their way to Hezbollah, the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor, was and remains difficult Shaikh told me.
“We’re seeing this long-term procurement but it’s very difficult to track,” he says. “Just to make this small  Hezbollah report took a long time.”
The game has moved on Shaikh says and it is still tough for Israeli or American intelligence to determine what Hezbollah has and can effectively operate, today with drones additionally thrown into the mix. As ever in the Middle East, analysts have to confirm that what they’re identifying isn’t just “new paint jobs” on old missiles as seen repeatedly in Yemen.
But there is little doubt that Hezbollah’s massive stock of rockets and missiles has a higher proportion of precision-guided projectiles than ever. If the Lebanese extremists choose to employ them en masse, Israel will find it very hard to stop them.