Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Lebanon, Nicaragua: Hizzbulah's Katyusha Rockets

Ok, so we hear about 100's of rockets fired at Israel on the TV, which to my mind at least brings up images of V-2's raining on London or SCUD missles. It could not be further from the truth, it is more like being shelled. The Northern part of Israel is being rocketed with Katyusha rockets, fired out of multiple tube launchers. This is a weapon that is directly descended from the "Stalin Organs" of WWII. They have thousands of the things they have stockpiled. Hizzbulah does have long range guided missles, and might have shot one or two, but the bulk of the activity is the unguided Katyusha's, whose range is limited to about 5 miles.

The Sandinista used to have these things, mounted them on trucks. Without warning they once shot a bunch of these into Lake Managua at night, to make some sort of statement - this was when they were very paranoid about Reagan invading. Scared the crap out of people who figured it might be the beginning of said invasion. Miles away, it sounded like thunder, the sounds echoed through the hills where we lived, and it literally shook the ground of places closer to the lake. Once we figured it wasn't coming our way, I climbed on a tree and looked down towards the lake. If the sound was thunder, this was like lightning streaking towards the lake, it was freaky looking. Wouldn't want to be on the other side, just hearing them launched and blow up was loud and scary.
People who have been on the other side of these things tell me it is terrifying. Salvos of 50 lb warheads falling out of the sky coming right at you, making a hellish noise, shaking the ground and killing those close enough to get caught outside. The point of these things is to shake up dug-in troops, keep them scared in foxholes, kill and destroy things out in the open, in essence denying movement to an enemy. They are not very accurate, and the real effective way to use them is to mass them and concentrate your fire, launching multiple salvos aimed in the general direction where the defenders are before the infantry advances. The clearest example is the classic World War II footage of the Soviets firing rows of these rockets as part of their enormous artillery barrage against the German defending Berlin. At the siege of Dien Bien Phu, the Vietminh -almost literally on foot- dragged batteries of these launchers through the thick jungles and up the hills surrounding the French defenses. A later version - probably the ones used now by Hizzbulah- was also used by Egyptians when they crossed the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War.
Hizzbulah can not use these launchers in such mass formations, due to the overwhelming airpower and counter-battery fire the Israeli's can bring to bear. From the footage on TV, looks like they are firing single salvos, or individual rockets - re aiming quickly - and launching again to hit a wide swath of territory. Some of their launchers they might be trying to move around. In addition, they have them pre-positioned and pre-sighted, in fixed sites much like the Vietnminh did, to fire quickly (all you need is a car battery) to then quicly leave and abandom them.
Launching these rockets at a city is going to intimidate, scare, destroy houses, and kill civilians, but the effect is limited to the mobility of the enemy, which is not that great to begin with. The range is small. There are civilian areas of Israel that have been subject to shelling from fixed positions for decades. A suicide bomber in a bus could kill more people than the total of these attacks. That is no excuse, it is simply saying that this is not the worst attacks seen. The real question is whether this is phase one of a gradual escalation to more dangerous means.