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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

What Was the Mysterious Target Hit by a Drone in Beirut?

Filed under: Hizbullah, Iran

What Was the Mysterious Target Hit by a Drone in Beirut?
The damage to the Hizbullah press office’s windows in Beirut after the drone strike (Str/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

On August 24, 2019, two drones crashed in the Dahiyeh suburb of Beirut. One exploded in what the Arab News1 called a “botched Israeli drone strike.” Hizbullah media claimed that the attack was against its media offices. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri described the vehicles as “reconnaissance” drones, and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that the incident was “very, very, very dangerous.” Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force, took to Twitter to label the actions “insane operations.”

Soleimani Poster

The London Times provided some clarification about the targets: “crates believed to contain machinery to mix high-grade propellant for precision-guided missiles.”2

Specifically, the target was an “industrial planetary mixer.” What was unique about this mixer? Some models are available from Chinese companies on the internet for mixing food, cakes, paint, and dough.

The Target in Beirut

planetary industrial mixer
A planetary industrial mixer – for paints.

The Beirut target was a very special, eight-ton piece of machinery used for the production of solid fuel propellant for precision-guided missiles. Also destroyed was an electronic control system for the machine, packed in a separate crate.

The machine is heavy and delicate and was shipped in heavy wooden crates (without markings and special inscriptions) and anchored to the containers to prevent shocks. It is a complex and expensive process to deliver and install the equipment.

The machine was manufactured in Iran and is used for its ballistic missile industry. Iran may also have succeeded in delivering similar equipment to the Houthis in Yemen, given the dramatic improvement in their capabilities to launch missiles and explosive drones towards Saudi Arabia.

What Is Solid Propellant and Why Does Hizbullah Want It?

Missiles and rockets are generally fueled by liquid or solid fuels. Liquid-fueled weapons, however, cannot be stored for long periods. Moreover, once moved to their launch site where they are fueled, they are easier to detect before their launch.

Solid propellants improve missile range and payload capability.  As explained by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a “solid propellant is relatively stable, therefore, it can be manufactured and stored for future use. Solid propellants have a high density and can burn very fast. They are relatively insensitive to shock, vibration, and acceleration.”3 

In a prescient comment, the FAS noted, “Solid propellant production equipment and acceptance testing equipment are required for a nation to develop an indigenous capability to produce propellants for rocket-motor-powered missiles.” The manufacture of solid propellant is “an expensive, precision operation.”4

The process can be viewed in this vintage industrial video5 showing the various, precise, and dangerous stages in the production of solid fuel.

compounds and mixing processes
The various compounds and mixing processes involved. Amounts and conditions must be exact.
Solid rocket fuel
Solid rocket fuel as it comes out of the production process. Typically, robots perform the process because of the volatility of the substances involved.

Iran’s Interest – and Hizbullah’s

As Iran’s regime expands its military activities and enlists various proxy armies, it has an interest to provide longer-range and sophisticated missiles and rockets to allies in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Lebanon. Providing solid-fueled projectiles are essential for the success of its hegemonic goals. Even within its own arsenal, Iran is making the switch from liquid fuel to solid-fueled weapons, as seen in this chart by Weapons and Warfare.6

Table of rockets

Iran’s long-range Sejil solid-fueled missile (Fars, Wikipedia)

It must be noted that the transfer of solid fuel production equipment to Lebanon contradicts the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) prohibiting the transfer of ballistic missile production equipment (although Iran is not a signatory to the treaty).

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