Terror group’s strike with an advanced cruise missile catches Israeli ship’s crew and U.S. experts off guard
By MATT HILBURN, Associate Editor
Correction: Seapower should
have stated that the failed attack on the USS Kearsarge
and USS Ashland in Aqaba,
Jordan, took place in 2005.
On July 14, Hezbollah scored a major strategic coup when it struck the Israeli corvette Hanit with a missile off the coast of Lebanon, killing four sailors and severely damaging the sophisticated ship. A similar attack narrowly missed another Sa’ar 5 corvette but hit a Cambodian-flagged merchant ship, sinking it. On July 31, there were reports of similar firings, though no ships were hit.
The significance of the attacks, initially reported to be the work of a drone, was somewhat overshadowed by the daily barrage of Katyusha rockets on northern Israel. But to navies around the world, the event is a shocking affirmation that a terrorist group such as Hezbollah possesses capabilities never before imagined.
“It should not be lost on us, for example, that Hezbollah fields greater and longer-range weapons than most regional armed forces,” said Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander, U.S. Central Command, during Aug. 3 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “If left unchecked, it is possible to imagine chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons being transferred to militias or terrorist organizations by a state actor.”
On July 14, what had previously been unlikely became very real in the form of what appears to be a sophisticated C-802 antiship cruise missile.
“We believe it was a C-802, and I believe this is the first time we’ve seen a terrorist group use this kind of capability,” said Rear Adm. Tony L. Cothron, the director of naval intelligence. “It was certainly a surprise.”
In fact, the attack was such a surprise that the Sa’ar 5 corvette, Israel’s most advanced class of ship, reportedly did not have all of its electronic support measures (ESM) activated, perhaps believing it was not vulnerable to a cruise missile attack. The Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to requests for more information about the incident.
“By all accounts, the Israelis didn’t have their ESM on because they weren’t thinking a non-nation-state foe would have this kind of weapon,” said Robert Work, a senior defense analyst for the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. “So what it means in a broader context is anytime you venture into the littoral now, you man your ESM stations and have your [Close-In Weapon System] in a high state of readiness. You have to assume you’re under a multidimensional threat at all times.”
The C-802 is a Chinese-made, subsonic antiship cruise missile that can deliver an explosive payload of up to 165 kilograms over a range of about 120 kilometers. It skims the surface, no more than 5-7 meters above the water, before it strikes. It is equipped with robust antijamming capabilities and can be launched from land, air and sea.
The missiles fired by Hezbollah against the Israeli targets could have been Iranian variants called Noors, and, according to the Naval Institute’s Guide to World Naval Weapons Systems Fifth Edition, the Iranians have been working with North Korea to improve the range and accuracy of C-802s Iran purchased from China in the 1990s.
Cothron said that since the C-802 is such a sophisticated weapon it is likely Iran provided some kind of assistance, whether it was actual people on the ground or just technical know-how.
“Typically, with these types of missiles, there is some kind of targeting support, usually shore-based radar activity that is providing over-the-horizon targeting,” he said. “The missile will use that for its initial vector, and then at some point turn on its radar, and then it will get its own organic vectors to its target.”
For almost 40 years, the dangers of antiship cruise missiles have been widely known to the world’s navies.
In 1967, the Israeli destroyer Eilat was sunk by the Egyptian Navy off the coast of Sinai by Soviet-made Styx ship-launched guided missiles. Exocets, French-made guided missiles, were used with great success against the British Royal Navy during the Falklands War with Argentina in 1982.
Exocets again proved their lethality in 1987 when the frigate USS Stark was hit by two missiles fired by an Iraqi Mirage in the Persian Gulf. The attack killed 37 sailors, and is the only example of a successful attack by a cruise missile against a U.S. Navy ship.
The U.S. Navy also has used antiship cruise missiles with success, first in 1986, when two Harpoon missiles were fired at a Libyan ship off the coast of Libya, and then again in 1988, during Operation Praying Mantis, when an Iranian ship was destroyed by Harpoons.
Along with the Harpoon, the C-802 is considered one of the most effective antiship missiles in the world, and experts are quick to point out the significance of such a capability in the hands of terrorists.
“I think because [the attack on Hanit] was seen as an isolated incident, people think it is some kind of fluke, or they got lucky, or there was just one,” said Guy Ben-Ari, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I don’t think that’s the case.”
Ben-Ari added that the prevalence of the C-802 around the world is the “$64,000” question.
“I think it’s anybody’s guess how many there are out there,” he said. “If they can operate one or two successfully, they can operate many successfully. If they target an Israeli ship one day, they can target an American ship.”
Given the attack on the USS Cole off Yemen in 2000 and the failed attack on the USS Kearsarge and USS Ashland in Aqaba, Jordan, in 2003, U.S. Navy ships are no doubt seen as prime targets for terrorists. And with C-802s in their quiver, the U.S. Navy will have to redouble efforts to defend against it.
“We have followed the evolution of these types of weapons for decades,” said Cothron. “We construct our ships and put capabilities onboard to detect and fight them.”
Among those capabilities are the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System and SeaRAM, which use sophisticated radar to either fire a spray of 20mm bullets, in the case of Phalanx, or a missile, in the case of SeaRAM, at a potential threat. They are both considered a last line of defense against cruise missiles, and threats from small boats and unmanned aerial vehicles.
“I don’t believe there are any Navy captains that believe they can’t protect their ships,” said Jim Wolf, program director for Phalanx Systems at Raytheon. “I think the Navy is fully capable to handle anything that might come its way.”
Without going into details, Cothron said there would be logical changes to force protection schemes in light of the Hanit attack.
“There certainly is awareness that this type of capability is there that wasn’t there before,” he said. “So commanders of all navies and merchant ship captains in the area will make changes that are appropriate to their own capabilities and based on their mission.”
Work said he could not imagine the Israeli Navy would operate off the coast of Lebanon again without all ESM on, and that the U.S. Navy would do the same. He said the Hanit attack also “ratcheted up the threat to ships operating in the Persian Gulf.”
“Typically when we do force protection it’s been with al Qaeda in mind,” said Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council and an expert on regional security in the Middle East. “We tend to do force protection retroactively, but coming down the pike quite clearly is a major conflict with Iran, and what you see now is a foretaste of what might be thrown at us.”
David Schenker, a senior fellow in Arab politics at The Washington Institute, said sophisticated antiship missiles in the hands of a terrorist organization is “certainly more of a problem for the U.S. Navy than a rubber dinghy,” referring to the attack on the Cole, where terrorists detonated their small explosives-laden boat alongside the guided-missile destroyer, killing 17 sailors.