Paramilitary: When Too Much Is Not Enough


September 24, 2019: Since the 2006 war with Hezbollah, Israel has been putting a lot more effort into civil defense, which has also improved the ability to handle all manner of local or widespread natural or man-made emergencies. Israel depended a lot on adapting existing or upcoming technology in this effort and in the process revolutionized its ability to respond to just about any disruptive event more effectively.

The most obvious outcome of this effort is called the Home Front Command National Command and Control system. The Israelis gave this a shorter name; Shual and it literally put hundreds of resources at the fingertips of anyone with a tablet computer and access code. Shual was designed to handle the largest possible emergency; a coordinated missile and rocket attack by Iran and its allies (Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and Syria). Shual is a recent development as work began on the current tablet or PC based system in 2016. Less integrated and capable versions of Shual have been around longer than that but what made Shual so very useful was that Shual had it all.

Israel is also worried about its next war with Iran. The last one was in 2006, when Iran used its Lebanese creation, Hezbollah, to fire thousands of rockets into northern Israel. While Hezbollah was defeated in that war, over a thousand Lebanese died, and many of them were not associated with Hezbollah. Thus many Lebanese who opposed Hezbollah now saw the pro-Iranian organization as a heroic protector of Lebanon. This even though Hezbollah started the war by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers. Despite the presence of a UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, Hezbollah has been able to rebuild its network of bunkers, weapons storage sites and lookout posts. In 2010 Israel gave the UN a map showing the location of 950 of these facilities. About 60 percent of these positions are bunkers, and another 11 percent are for storing rockets and other weapons. Most of these bunkers are in or near 270 villages, and many were constructed as part of repairs on homes and public buildings damaged during the 2006 war. But the UN will do nothing, as Hezbollah told the peacekeepers early on that if there was any interference, there would be a terror campaign against UN personnel. So the UN and the peacekeepers stood aside as Hezbollah prepared for the continuation of the 2006 war.

In 2009 Israel informed the US that Hezbollah now had several thousand larger rockets that could reach Israel’s largest cities (particularly Tel Aviv). Since it might take two months for Israeli ground forces to clear Hezbollah out of south Lebanon, Israeli cities would have to deal with being hit with up to a hundred missiles a day. This convinced the U.S. to provide Israel with all the penetrating (anti-bunker) bombs it needed. But this still left Israel with the problem of how to deal with all those incoming rockets. Israel has an Iron Dome anti-missile system, but currently, there are too few of these to prevent some rockets from getting through.

That was not the only problem. Israeli Civil Defense authorities concluded in 2009 that they can only provide residents of Tel Aviv and Central Israel with 90 seconds warning, not the previous two minutes, of impending rocket attack. This is all because of the increased number of long-range rockets owned by Hamas (in Gaza) and Hezbollah (in southern Lebanon). Israel already has a radar-based rocket detection system in 2009, and software that quickly calculated where an incoming rocket will land. At that point, the system automatically sounds the sirens in the target area, warning everyone to take cover, and wait for the all-clear siren signal. Israeli intelligence believes that Hamas and Hezbollah had so many rockets ready to launch in 2009 that the Israeli warning system would not be able to plot landing areas for all incoming rockets quickly enough. Thus the 25 percent reduction in warning time. Over the last decade, Israel has improved its anti-missile and rocket defenses and early warning system as well as constantly revising its civil defense plans, and how to deal with the growing arsenal of rockets and ballistic missiles aimed at it. Beginning in 2010 the military also began dispersing its stocks of supplies, equipment and spare parts to a larger number of (better protected) locations.

In addition to rockets fired by Hamas and Hezbollah, there is also concern that Syria would fire larger, and longer range, rockets armed with explosive or chemical warheads. In 2011, before the Syrian rebellion changed the situation, Israel estimated that there would be as many as 3,300 Israeli casualties (including up to 200 dead) if Syria tried to use its long-range missiles and explosive warheads against Israel. If the Syrians used chemical warheads, Israeli casualties could be as high as 16,000. Over 200,000 Israelis would be left homeless, and it's believed about 100,000 would seek to leave the country. That threat rapidly diminished after 2011 as the Syrian military lost most of its missiles to capture by rebels or use against rebels. The Syrian military and Hezbollah were drawn into a civil war that is still not over. Even so, the threat of mass rocket attack by Hamas and Hezbollah remains.

Israel always assumed that Iran would fire some of its ballistic missiles as well, armed with conventional warheads. But the big danger was always Syria, which has been a client state of Iran since the 1980s. Syria had underground storage and launch facilities for its arsenal of over a thousand SCUD missiles. Armed with half-ton high explosive and cluster bomb warheads, the missiles have ranges of 500-700 kilometers. Syria also has some 90 older Russian Frog-7 missiles (70 kilometer range, half ton warhead) and 210 more modern Russian SS-21 missiles (120 kilometer range, half ton warhead) operating with mobile launchers. There are also 60 mobile SCUD launchers. The Syrians have a large network of camouflaged launching sites for the mobile launchers. Iran and North Korea helped Syria build underground SCUD manufacturing and maintenance facilities. The Syrian missiles are meant to hit Israeli airfields, missile launching sites and nuclear weapons sites, as well as population centers. Syria hoped to do enough damage with a missile strike to cripple Israeli combat capability. That Syrian capability is largely gone now but the Iranians are trying to rebuild it. Given the danger such a Syrian based missile threat poses for Israel, there has been an undeclared war between Israel and Iran in Syria for several years now. Israel has launched hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian efforts to rebuild the Syrian based threat. It was the civil defense studies before 2011 that made Israel aware of the extent of that threat.

Shual was developed with the worst case in mind and even though the worst-case diminished after 2011, Iran is determined to rebuild it. So Israel continued improving its civil defense and disaster response capabilities. Shual is used constantly whenever there is a rocket fired from Gaza, Lebanon or Syria. Large storms or forest fires also give Shual some work. These frequent uses of Shual mean there is constant opportunity to spot and correct problems as well as add new features or improve existing ones.

For example a decade ago Israel was divided into 25 missile alert areas. If the radar software determined a missile or rocket was headed for one of these areas, all the attack warning sirens in that area went off, sending over 100,000 people scrambling for shelter. Now there are 1,700 missile attack alert areas and the software can quickly calculate if rockets and missiles headed for one of these areas will hit any populated areas. If not, no siren. Otherwise, the alarm was sounded and people were pretty confident the threat was real. This system has received a lot of use along the Gaza border, where nearly a thousand rockets were fired at Israel in the last year. A lesser number were fired along the northern border from Lebanon and Syria.

Shual is used by emergency response, military and civil defense personnel to see, with a few taps, the extent of the attack, the damage and the capabilities of medical and other emergency personnel to handle it. Shual can access over 200 items (or “layers”) of information and display them on a map of Israel or any portion of the country. For example, local officials can see how many ambulances and emergency room beds are available and where. This information is updated by ambulances and hospitals in real-time so police or military responders to an attack can quickly call in the closest resources to deal with the situation. Shual also shows all manner of data on the state of infrastructure (power outages, roads blocked and so on) nationwide. Shual also links with local security cameras and can take pictures of local situations and load them into the Shual network for all to see. First responders can all take digital photos and put it in the Shual network where photos will be accessible by location, time and date or nature of the activity.

Israel is developing new tactics to deal with the next rocket attack, from Hezbollah, Hamas or Syria. The tactics are kept secret, as much as possible, to deny the enemy an opportunity to come up with countermeasures. The situation with Syria was always a little different. No unclassified government planning documents have discussed what Israel would do in response to an attack using chemical weapons, but in the past, Israel has threatened to use nukes against anyone who fired chemical weapons at Israel, which does not have any chemical weapons. But current plans appear to try and keep it non-nuclear for as long as possible. For the Syrians, going to war with Israel was always a very risky endeavor. Before 2011 Syria knew that just using explosive warheads would not do enough damage to Israel to prevent Israeli troops from advancing on the capital of Syria. Chemical warheads on the missiles might stop, or slow down, the Israelis. Still a very long shot. The fighting in Syria after 2011 revealed that Syrians did indeed have chemical warheads, although we may never know if they had the nerve to actually use them. The Syrian chemical stockpile was destroyed in 2013, under UN supervision, to prevent the Americans from getting involved in the war on the side of the rebels. Iran still has its chemical warheads and is working on building nuclear ones. So Israeli civil defense efforts are still at the “too much ain’t enough” stage.




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