Fears that some of the world's most sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons that disappeared from government warehouses in Libya would end up in the hands of stateless insurgent are being realized.
At least some of the roughly 480 high-performance SA-24 “Grinch” shoulder-launched missiles that disappeared during the Libyan uprising have reappeared in the hands of insurgents on the borders of Israel, say senior Israeli officials.
The advanced weapons were smuggled out of Libya to Iran. From there the supply line split, with some weapons going to Syria and finally to the military wing of the Hezbollah organization in Lebanon. Others were smuggled into Egypt and then to Hamas in Gaza.
“They are in the Gaza Strip,” an Israeli official tells Aviation Week. “I don't know in what numbers. They also are in Lebanon.”
The Russian-made SA-24 is a top-of-the-line, man-portable air defense system (Manpads) that is lethal to aircraft, helicopters and UAVs to an altitude of 11,000 ft. U.S. officials earlier confirmed that Libyan weapons went to Hezbollah and Gaza, but contended they did not know the fate of the SA-24s. Only empty packing crates were found in Libyan warehouses.
Opinions are mixed about the impact of these weapons.
“That should cause pause for everyone wanting to rush to the fight,” says a senior U.S. congressional staffer who specializes in defense issues. However, in the few times the missiles have seen combat, they did not affect the course of the conflict. Although the weapon is one of the more advanced Manpads on the world market, Western electronic warfare experts appear to have quickly developed operational techniques to defeat it. Even without the most advanced laser-based directed infrared countermeasures systems, British WAH-64 Apache attack helicopters faced a number of SA-24 firings and defeated them.
Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas have been long linked by the exchange of intelligence, surveillance and arms. Syria's radar, signals intelligence and command-and-control systems, newly upgraded by Russian technicians, provide an early warning system for the Western approaches to Iran in addition to monitoring internal dissent. Iranians ran a sigint operation in Syria to support Hezbollah during the 2006 conflict in Lebanon. Israeli communications appear not to have been intercepted and decrypted, but traffic analysis of personal mobile phones provided clues to the assembly points of Israeli troops that may have telegraphed the points of offensive thrusts into Lebanon.
U.S. intelligence officials say claims of how much the Syrian systems have been improved were exaggerated in early reports, as were reports of how long it would take U.S. forces to crush Iranian air defenses and successfully stage an attack on Tehran's missile and nuclear development programs. At least one retired U.S. Air Force chief of staff said the process could be completed in three days. Critics of that assessment suggest that suppression and destruction of the Iranian shield would take longer, depending on how active Iranian defenders are in the first few days of any conflict. In recent years, foes have simply kept some sites inactive just to preserve them for pop-up attacks.
“The Syrian air defense system is being improved significantly, but not so much because of the low- and very-low-frequency surveillance radars but rather because of the introduction of the SA-17 [“Grizzly”/Buk-M2E],” the Israeli official says. “Two months ago they showed their SA-17 in public. It's a new and severe threat for all types of flying systems including UAVs.” The effective altitude range of the weapon is advertised as 100 ft. to 82,000 ft. and an effective range of 2-26 mi.
U.S. and Israeli surveillance also has tracked the movement of arms from Iran—some of them looted from Libya—into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. At first there were reports of Syria's ballistic missiles being stored there to protect them from rebel forces. Now it appears the traffic has been Libyan arms going to Hezbollah.
“There are reports that [the missiles] are in the hands of Hezbollah, as are any types of arms that exist in Syria with the exception of the SS-21,” the Israeli official says. The SS-21 “Scarab” is a 120-km-range (75-mi.) ballistic missile.
Moreover, U.S. and Israeli analysts are worried that stocks of chemicals for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) also may have been taken from Libya for sale on the black market. Both Hezbollah and Hamas have been developing or obtaining ever-larger and longer-range missiles to bombard Israel, according to Israeli analysts. The weapons—new, locally developed 8-in. rockets—were tracked by radar when test-fired from Gaza into the Mediterranean and the Sinai Desert. Hezbollah also has rockets big enough to carry WMD warheads.
The WMD threat, however, does not appear to be an active capability of Hezbollah. “We don't think so yet,” the Israeli official says. Nonetheless, “there are hundreds of heavy rockets facing Israel now that could bring severe destruction to the central part of the state.”
But there is an assumption in the West that Israel may yet be forced into action if Syria's large stockpile of chemical weapons is at risk of falling into insurgent hands. Syria has the world's fourth largest chemical weapons arsenal, and both the U.S. and Israel are keeping a close watch on it, says Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies' (IISS) nonproliferation program. Options could include raids to extract the warheads or destroy the stocks in place.
One unknown of the current conflict in Syria is what effects regime change might have on Iran. Fitzpatrick notes that possible outcomes range from Teheran feeling pressured to open itself to dialogue, to the country deciding it needs to pursue its nuclear program even more fiercely to protect itself. What is more certain is that there would be a disruption of the supply lines between Iran and Hezbollah.
A secondary effect of the fighting in Syria could be increased Iranian pressure on Iraq. There is concern in Baghdad that if Tehran suffers a strategic defeat from the loss of a key ally, Syria, it may try to offset the impact by expanding its influence in Iraq, says Toby Dodge, a consulting senior fellow on Middle East affairs for IISS.