Friday, August 11, 2006

Katyusha Politics

In Jamestown's Terrorism Monitor, Andrew McGregor discusses the method by which Hizballah has managed to convert a World War II-derived armament into an instrument of political and ideological aggression:
The 122mm Katyusha (range: 20-25 kilometers) is the mainstay of Hezbollah's rocket arsenal. "Katyusha" is somewhat of a generic term today, covering a wide variety of small, unguided, solid-fuel rockets produced by a number of countries, including Iran. The Katyushas all have a common origin in the Soviet BM-8 and BM-13 truck-mounted rocket launchers that were used against the German army in 1941. Fired in short-range volleys of as many as 48 rockets at a time, they had an immediate military and psychological impact on German troops.

Hezbollah usually fires their version of the Katyusha one at a time from improvised launching facilities. Some Katyusha-type multiple-rocket launching systems were specifically designed to be dismantled into single units for guerrilla use. In 2001, the first truck-mounted launching systems were reported in Hezbollah's arsenal, making more effective volley-launches possible. There are some recent instances of volley-firing, such as the attacks on the Israeli town of Acre on August 3.

Once in the air, the cheaply-made Katyushas are remarkably difficult to stop. A few years ago, Israel and the United States cooperated in a joint project to develop a "Tactical High Energy Laser" (THEL) to bring down such rockets by igniting the warhead in mid-air through the use of a high-energy chemical laser. In tests the system successfully destroyed several Katyusha rockets, but mobility difficulties and technical concerns related to the chemical fuel led to a cut in funding for the project in 2004. Research is underway on a more-portable version with an electrically powered laser, but production of this costly system is still years away.

The unguided Katyusha is not intended to strike a specific target. Rather, it is designed to be fired with 16 or more of its kind in a salvo that rains destruction upon a certain area, preferably a troop concentration, massed armor or fortified emplacements. By firing Katyusha-type rockets singly (often into sparsely occupied parts of Israel) Hezbollah has forgone the tactical use of this weapon for strategic purposes. Here Hezbollah signals its mastery of media warfare; the media covers wars like a sporting event, with the scorecard being the most important element in determining who is winning. Besides the daily updates of the number of troops killed, the number of civilians killed and the number of air-raids launched, the media also dutifully records the daily tally of rockets fired. Despite causing insignificant physical damage, each rocket arrives like a message of defiance, a signal to the Arab world that Israel is not invincible. Hezbollah routinely looks for new uses for existing weapons in its arsenal, and in this case they have transformed a battlefield weapon into a means of political warfare.

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