TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- Amid reports of an Israeli airstrike on advanced Russian-built S-300 air-defense missiles in the Syrian port of Latakia, military chiefs and missile specialists are delivering stark warnings of the 170,000 missiles and rockets they say are in the hands of the Jewish state's enemies.
If a new war erupts in a region that's currently ravaged by conflict and political turmoil, leading missile expert Uzi Rubin has made no bones about the "massive casualties" he says will be caused in Israeli cities.
He bluntly told a recent conference on missile defense held at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv that in the face of a sustained missile bombardment, the military would use its missile defense systems primarily to protect key bases rather than population centers "to preserve Israel's capability to fight a war and save lives as far as possible."
Rubin knows what's he talking about. He founded and directed Israel's Missile Defense Organization and headed the program that developed the high-altitude Arrow missile, the top layer of Israel's multitier missile defense system and designed to intercept Iranian ballistic missiles.
The scale of the threat was later spelled out by Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, director of military intelligence, who asserted Iran, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian militants possess 170,000 missiles, everything from short-range unguided rockets to intermediate range ballistic missiles like Iran's Shehab-3b and the more advanced Sejjil-2 now being developed.
"For the first time in many decades, the enemy has the ability to drop considerable amounts on munitions on the cities of Israel," he warned, according to the Times of Israel daily.
In the past, he observed, Israel's air force was able to counter the threat, but the sheer scale of the missile power in the hands of Israel's adversaries means that's no longer so.
Worse, it pretty much sidelines the military's ground forces with their big battalions, tanks and artillery.
These disclosures of the scale of the missile threat are clearly intended to prepare Israel's 7 million people for a war in which the entire civilian population will for the first time be on the front line.
People living in the Galilee region in northern Israel got a taste of this new kind of warfare in the summer of 2006, when Hezbollah unleashed nearly 4,000 missiles and rockets during the 34-day conflict. Now Hezbollah's reputed to have 45,000 missiles.
Those attacks by largely unguided rockets killed 54 Israelis. The Armaggedon-like scenario now envisaged by Israel's military will involve thousands of casualties if the missile bombardment is sustained for several weeks, as planners believe it will.
Rubin was quoted by the Jerusalem Post as warning that the Iranians and others are starting to upgrade these relatively primitive weapons "into smart rockets" that increase their lethality.
"The Iranians took the Zelzal-2 and turned it into a guided rocket," he said. "The third generation of it contains a homing sensor and a GPS.
"The Syrians can have this capability too, to create a fully guided M600 rocket with GPS. Hezbollah probably has these too."
The M600 carries a warhead of 1,100 pounds of high explosives. A guided version would be "devastating," Rubin said.
A barrage of guided weapons "can paralyze Israel's war economy," he said. "And of course it can inflict massive casualties."
Iran has long supplied Hezbollah with weapons through Syria. Now that Syria is torn by civil war, Israeli officials claim Tehran and Damascus have stepped up the transfer of advanced surface-to-surface and anti-aircraft systems to Hezbollah for use against the Jewish state.
Israel's air force is believed to have mounted four or five airstrikes against these weapons held in storage in Syria controlled by the embattled Damascus regime or out in the open as they were being transferred by road.
U.S. officials say Hezbollah, which has troops fighting alongside the Syrian regime, is now smuggling these missiles into Lebanon by breaking them down to disguise the loads.
Israel is highly secretive about the airstrikes and has never acknowledged them. But it fears it will eventually be dragged into the Syrian war, which is part of a wider conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Lebanese military reported Israeli last week jets flying north to Syria. Soon after, explosions were reported in Latakia. Syrian rebels claimed a military warehouse containing S-300s was hit. Israel said nothing.