Israel has defenses in place against the supersonic Russian- made Yakhont anti-ship missile, ex-navy chief Vice-Admiral (res.) Eliezer Marom told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, days after The Wall Street Journal reported that Hezbollah has been smuggling the weapon to Lebanon in pieces to evade Israeli strikes.
Describing the Yakhont as the most advanced missile of its kind in the world, Marom said the West does not know very much about the weapon, which flies at low altitude “right over the sea,” reaching speeds of between Mach 2 and Mach 3 (up to three times the speed of sound).
With most other missiles in the Yakhont’s group achieving subsonic speed at most, the Yakhont represents a new type of threat, giving the navy between half and a third of the time to respond compared to other threats, Marom said.
He warned that no defense is foolproof.
“Israel has answers for these missiles, and these are being developed all of the time,” Marom, who completed his term as navy chief in 2011, added. “The more advanced the missile is, the less percentage of defenses available. This is a big challenge to the navy.
Additionally, with a range of 300 kilometers, it can reach every location on the Israeli coast.”
Should Hezbollah come to possess an operational arsenal of Yakhont missiles, it would be able to target Israeli gas drilling rigs in the Mediterranean, civilian shipping, and ports.
While regimes like Syria can be deterred with threats of force if they try to smuggle the missile, Hezbollah is largely immune to such pressure, Marom said.
“Hezbollah might say, ‘attack Lebanon, go ahead.’ It doesn’t bother them so much. This is the difficulty of dealing with a non-state actor,” he said.
Noting that Israel has publicly warned it would intervene if strategic weapons were sent to Lebanon, Marom compared Israel’s attempts at stopping Hezbollah’s ongoing smuggling efforts and the arms flow from Syria to Lebanon to police pursuing criminals.
The ability to militarily stop such smuggling “depends on pinpoint intelligence, and the ability to carry out pinpoint attacks,” Marom said. “There are serious difficulties in this kind of option. In addition to intelligence and military capabilities, it needs a government decision.
I’m no longer among decision makers, but my assumption is that in some cases, a decision was taken not to intervene, even if intelligence was received,” he said.
Diplomacy represents an additional route available to Israel to pressure those involved in smuggling, though this channel seems to have failed, the former navy chief said.
In August last year, unnamed US officials leaked information on alleged Israel Air Force air strikes in Syria, telling The New York Times that a July 5 strike on a Syrian warehouse near Latakia targeted Yakhont missiles, and that the strike failed to destroy all of the missiles.
Additional air strikes would be required to complete the job, the sources said.