The Second Version

28/05/07

The Kassam Situation

While hostilities never really ceased despite the countless empty ceasefires declared by one or the other Palestinian faction, recently the intensity of rocket fire against Israel has been ramped up. Or so it would seem; reporting on that conflict follows strongly the news cycle, so it's hard to figure the actual combat intensity while the media are busy clamoring about other stories.

Anyway, many news stories appear to emphasize the crudeness and low-accuracy of the Kassam rockets, seemingly to downplay their lethality, and perhaps to draw a comparison with the high-tech Israeli weapons.

The ugly truth is, Kassams are crude and inaccurate weapons. They cannot be aimed at any specific objective, but only at a certain area. And, if I remember correctly, many of these rockets are plagued by malfunctions and failures at various stages of their flight. When a Kassam produces casualty or property damage is more through luck (from the Palestinian perspective) than design.

The low accuracy of Palestinian rockets is a direct consequence of their design and production technique: they are intended to be built from readily available steel sheets and tubes and a few more components; the Kassam propellant appears to be based on ammonium nitrate - which is the most widely available oxidizer. Even if these rockets are produced in small factories and workshops, the capabilities of their makers cannot obtain the tight geometric tolerances and general product quality required for accurate weapons. A slightly ovalized or bent tube; a tailfin a bit bigger or smaller, or welded at the wrong angle or with its leading edge not properly smoothed are enough to make a rocket go astray; irregularities in the propellant filling will produce erratic thrust and so on. Also, Israeli pressure and attacks against rocket factories make construction even more difficult.

Palestinians could produce rockets with a bigger warhead to make up for the scarce accuracy, but that is a more serious technological challenge, and runs into logistical problems: Palestinian capabilities for resupply are limited (on a relative scale, of course) so they must try to make the most with the little they have. Sucide bombers were the most effective, but Israeli efforts - mainly, the much-reviled separation fence - have made sucide bombings extremely difficult to accomplish.

Some are worried that guidance systems may be fitted to the Kassams, turning them into relatively accurate missiles. But this is not a very likely outcome: rocket guidance systems aren't exactly off-the-shelf devices, and designing and buidling one working to specifications is no trivial task. Yes, it can be done, but the whole thing is going to be expensive and bulky. But even if guidance systems can be manufactured or bought, due to the construction problems discussed above, it is very unlikely that a guided Kassam can reach the same performance level of a suicide bomber (which can decide with absolute precision where and when to detonate "its" warhead).

At the endgame, the pressure that Palestinian can put on Israel with rocket fire is only a fraction of the pressure that they could put with suicide bombers.

Yes, this is a cold, rational strategic analysis that deliberataly takes no account of the individual tragedies and plight. But isn't rationality and fact-based reasoning what the Right wants?

However, one should not think that Kassam rockets are a joke. No, they are deadly weapons - and used with the clear intento to kill or injure as many non-combatants as possible. Israel should respond more forcefully to that: with counterbattery fire. Automated or manual, six 155mm shells should rain on the launch location as soon as possible. This kind of response can produce non-combatant casualties on the Palestinian side, but it is well known that refusing to fire on human shields will only incentivate their use.

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