A New Threat to Iron Dome

Precision guided munitions will make Israel’s self-defense more challenging and more expensive.

On November 3, occasional Dispatch contributor Jonathan Schanzer released a new book titled Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas Israel and Eleven Days of War (FDD Press). The following is a slightly modified excerpt from Chapter 14, “Northern Exposure,” which addresses Israel’s threat from Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In decades past, Israel was blessed with ill-equipped enemies. More recently, the efforts of Iranian proxies such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have been mitigated by Iron Dome. The missile defense system’s success rate is well known, but it has been boosted by the fact that Israel’s foes have been firing unguided, or “dumb,” rockets. Without GPS or target-acquisition capabilities, many of these rockets miss their intended targets. When Iron Dome’s radar detects a rocket and the battle management and weapon control system determine that the projectile is not going to strike a target of value, operators decline to expend a valuable interceptor, permitting the rocket to fall harmlessly into an uninhabited space.

With precision guided munitions (PGMs), however, Iran’s proxies could potentially evade Iron Dome while striking within five to ten yards of their intended targets. The regime in Iran thus began working overtime in 2013 to stand up a program to enable its proxies to convert their dumb rockets into smart ones. In a 2018 interview with Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) Aerospace Force commander, General Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, recounted how in 2009 he presented the Iranian leadership with a plan to modernize the country’s missile program. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei overruled his entire plan and ordered him to focus solely on the development of PGMs. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has since boasted about the importance of this project to his organization and to the broader “Axis of Resistance.”

The PGM project remains a top priority for the regime. Even after the January 2020 assassination of IRGC-Quds Force commander Major General Qassim Soleimani, who was widely known to be a champion of the project, PGM development was believed to have continued under deputy Quds Force commander Mohammed Hijazi until he died, reportedly of natural causes, in 2021. 

Whole PGMs are difficult to transfer now that Israel is fully aware of the Iranian project. Hezbollah has therefore worked to convert unguided rockets (what some Israeli officials have described to me as “statistical” rockets) into PGMs. The process is both simple and complicated. It is simple because all it takes are tail fins, a circuit board, and the right software. One former Israeli official estimated that an entire PGM-making kit might cost $15,000 per munition. However, the process is also complicated because dismantling a rocket, retrofitting it with precision-guided technology, and then reassembling it is dangerous and requires knowledge and infrastructure that Iran’s low-tech proxies generally lacked.

With Iran’s help, Hezbollah has worked to bridge that gap. That explains why the Israelis have struck so many targets in Syria in recent years. They have been patrolling the smuggling routes from Iran to Syria to Lebanon to halt the transfer of PGMs, PGM parts, or other related technology.

Israel has also targeted PGMs inside Lebanon. In August 2019, an Israeli drone strike reportedly targeted a solid fuel production facility in Lebanon, setting back Hezbollah’s PGM production by an estimated one year. It was the first time the Israel Defense Force (IDF) had operated inside Lebanon in several years, marking a dramatic break from the unspoken rules of the game—that Israel could freely strike PGMs in Syria, but Lebanon was off-limits. The following year, the IDF exposed three new PGM sites in Lebanon.  Hezbollah denied the reports, but on a tour the group granted to journalists at one of the sites, it inadvertently revealed machinery that was used to manufacture the weapons.

Iran’s PGM efforts have continued despite Israel’s intelligence dominance and increasingly aggressive operations to counter the program. Both sides understand that when enough PGMs reach the hands of Israel’s enemies, the effect will indeed be game-changing. It is for this reason that IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi identified the PGM threat to Israel as second only to Iran’s nuclear program.

The PGM threat to Israel is manifold. First, PGM accuracy will force Israel to use far more Iron Dome interceptors than it currently deploys. This is because the number of errant launches will plummet, forcing Israel to try to neutralize nearly every projectile that is launched. Each Tamir interceptor costs roughly $100,000. Thus, defending Israel could become much more expensive. Moreover, Iron Dome could eventually run out of interceptors if tens of thousands of rockets are fired during a prolonged conflict.

More worrying, with enough PGMs fired at the same target, Iran’s proxies may be able to outmaneuver, outsmart, or overwhelm Israel’s missile defenses. Some rockets will inevitably get through. In the future, if the intended target is the chemical plant in Haifa, the Kiriya (Israel’s defense headquarters) in Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion International Airport, the Dimona nuclear facility, or a Tel Aviv high-rise office building, the results could be catastrophic. As Jacob Nagel told me during one of our many conversations during the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020, “with enough PGMs, the impact on certain targets could be close to the impact of a nuclear weapon.”

Currently, the Israelis believe that Hezbollah is the only Iranian proxy group on its borders that possesses Iranian PGMs. Most officials will not say how many PGMs Hezbollah has. Initially, Israelis were saying “dozens,” but I have heard “several hundred” in my not-for-attribution conversations. Those numbers will grow as Hezbollah continues to work feverishly on this project. During the next war, PGMs will be interspersed among the thousands of unguided rockets fired into Israel, making them even harder to identify and pick off.

Targeting PGMs will become even more complicated for Israel in the future. The regime in Iran is not only working assiduously to obscure their transportation and assembly. Tehran is also devising ways to store them under homes, schools, hospitals, apartment buildings, refugee camps, and other heavily populated civilian infrastructure. In other words, Hezbollah, like Hamas, is using the illegal tactic of human shields. When the time comes, the decision to strike these weapons on the ground will be excruciating for the IDF. Just as Hezbollah and its Iranian backers have planned it, every strike will create immense public-relations pressure for Israel as images of injured or dead civilians fill the television screens and Twitter feeds of news consumers worldwide.

Theoretically, there are two actors in Lebanon who could avert this crisis. The reality is that neither will. The first is the American-funded Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Though Lebanon is thoroughly dominated by Hezbollah, the United States continues to look to the LAF as a counterbalance to the Iranian proxy—and it is still not entirely clear what that means. The United Nations also embraces this odd logic, with dangerous consequences. In 2006, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1701, calling on Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah. Yet for years, the LAF has looked the other way while Iran smuggled PGMs and PGM parts into Lebanon.  The LAF also was somehow unaware that Hezbollah spent an estimated two years digging a massive system of subterranean cross-border attack tunnels into Israel.

As my colleague Tony Badran has repeatedly noted, the problem is not the LAF’s capabilities. The problem is the LAF’s collusion. In one telling example, Israel in 2019 exposed a Hezbollah PGM facility in eastern Lebanon. The site was a short drive away from a LAF base where the United States has delivered equipment, including ScanEagle reconnaissance drones. The base also hosts the US- and UK-funded Land Border Training Center, designed to help the LAF secure Lebanon’s porous border. Hezbollah, with Iran’s assistance, built a PGM facility next door.

The other actor in Lebanon that should be halting the PGM program is the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). It was first created in the 1970s to halt terrorist activity in the country. UNIFIL’s mandate expanded greatly in 2006 after the war between Hezbollah and Israel. Nonetheless, the organization has utterly failed to halt the smuggling of weapons into Lebanon, even in the limited territory defined in its mandate. It barely pretends to try. No steps have been taken to strengthen its capabilities or to redefine its mandate more aggressively. In short, UNIFIL epitomizes the failure of the UN system. Some Israeli officials still defend the organization, primarily because it affords the IDF opportunities to engage directly with their Lebanese counterparts. The value of that, particularly as Lebanon unravels, is questionable.

Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the author of the new book Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas, Israel and Eleven Days of War (FDD Press). Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer