As Hezbollah’s Nasrallah issues new threats to commercial shipping in the Levant, it’s worth recalling the events of July 2006. During the conflict that summer with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel’s INS Hanit, a Saar-V class corvette, was hit by an anti-ship missile launched by Hezbollah from the Lebanese coast. Haaretz reported that a Cambodian-flagged freighter was hit by another missile in the same July 14 attack. The freighter sank afterward; its Egyptian crewmen were rescued from the Mediterranean, but four Israelis were killed in the attack on Hanit.
Austin Bay, who writes frequently on defense matters, posted this excellent analysis of the shipping attacks at his blog. The missiles Hezbollah used were a Chinese-designed C802 cruise missile, which Iran has produced for a number of years as the “Noor” missile, and the Iranian “Kosar” version of the Chinese C701 missile.
No question remains as to whether Iran has supplied anti-ship missiles to Hezbollah. The only question is whether Hezbollah is now being supplied with Iran’s newer anti-ship missiles. China and Iran launched a production facility in March 2010 for the “Nasr” missile, Iran’s version of the Chinese C704, a newer cruise missile with a passive homing capability. Iran’s navy fired the Nasr missile in its Persian Gulf exercise in April, a move similar to the introduction of the Kosar missile in the major naval exercise in April of 2006. Three months after that 2006 exercise, Hezbollah used the Kosar off the coast of Lebanon.
Israeli warships can defend themselves against Hezbollah’s cruise missiles. Hanit’s failure to do so was attributed to the constraints of an Israeli forces operating policy, which had been put in place to prevent unintentional firing on friendly aircraft.
But merchantmen have no defense against such weapons. Nasrallah’s threat is far from empty, as Hezbollah has already proved. The coastal region off Lebanon and Israel, through which ships approach the Suez Canal, is one of the busiest in the world. The likelihood is very real that the U.S. will find it necessary to take action if Hezbollah starts launching missiles at commercial ships. It bears noting that whether that task is approached passively (e.g., with defensive escort) or through active counterattack on Hezbollah’s positions ashore, the weapon systems suitable for the problem are the Aegis warships and aircraft carriers Defense Secretary Gates wants fewer of. No less-capable platform can handle the mission.