August 13, 2006

Israel and the U.S.: Rushing a Rocket Order

The U.S. State Department has voiced concern about a scheduled shipment of U.S. anti-personnel rockets to Israel. The truth is, it's mostly smoke.

Israel requested Aug. 10 that the United States rush a scheduled delivery of M-26 rockets for the M-270 Multiple Launch Rocket System. The United States approved the sale before the Lebanese conflict began but has yet to make any deliveries. While Israel has already received some GBU-28 guided bunker-busting bombs from the United States, the nature of the M-26 has raised some U.S. State Department concerns about delivering the rockets during the conflict.

Each M-26 rocket disperses 644 M-77 "bomblets" over an area roughly 350 feet by 650 feet. Each individual M-77 -- essentially a small grenade -- is stabilized by a ribbon. When deployed from a rocket, these bomblets can be devastating against light-skinned vehicles, such as trucks with mounted artillery rocket launchers, and absolutely deadly for troops out in the open. The rockets are generally fired in salvos and can ravage one-third of a square mile. The United States used the M-26 to great effect in the 1991 Gulf War. It is the ideal weapon to engage Hezbollah fighters firing artillery rockets. As soon as the Israelis detect the location from which Hezbollah has launched rockets, they can obliterate an area too big for the launcher or crew to flee.

Of course, the potential for civilian casualties is high. The M-26 is an indiscriminate weapon by design, and Hezbollah has been launching and concealing its own rockets in residential areas. The most enduring problem with such cluster munitions is that the entire batch does not always explode. Afghanistan and Iraq are both littered with tiny bomblets that -- to this day -- are maiming and killing civilians.

Ultimately, the United States wants Israel to destroy Hezbollah. This means, essentially, that Israel can ask for -- and get -- whatever munitions it wants under the table. We have no doubt that the Israelis would like the M-26, and that it would certainly be a useful tool in the battlespace. But it may not be all that crucial in the current fight. Chances are, if the M-26 were considered essential to their war effort, the Israelis would already have it and no one would be the wiser.


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