The prospect of Israel having to deal with armed, hostile, attack drones capable of firing rockets or small missiles at Israeli targets while flying over Lebanon or even Gaza is growing.
Despite the rising prominence of terrorist drones, Tal Inbar, head of the Space Research Center at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies in Herzliya, told The Jerusalem Post this week that the threat remains manageable.
Many reports that focus on the firepower capabilities of Hezbollah or Hamas list rocket and missile stockpiles and briefly mention the well-known fact that both of these highly armed semi-state terrorist organizations have their own drone fleets.
What is less known, perhaps, is that the drones in the service of Israel’s enemies have become more advanced. Today, they pose a bigger challenge to the Israel Air Force’s air defense systems, Inbar said.
Inbar listed Iran’s defense industry as the primary engine driving this change.
“We have seen armed Iranian drones. Some belong to the tin and paint division,” he said, referring to Iranian propaganda images that make false claims about advanced unmanned aerial platforms.
“But on the sidelines, there are real, more advanced drones. The most advanced of these is the Shahed-129,” Inbar said, referring to a platform that bears superficial resemblance to Elbit’s Hermes-450 UAV.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps boasted in 2013 that the Shahed-129 can carry eight missiles, and that its range is 1,700 km., apparently enabling it to reach Israel. In addition to its armed attack capabilities, the Shahed-129 can also reportedly carry out some visual intelligence activities.
If Hezbollah’s claims are to be believed, Iran has been successful in smuggling its flagship drone to Lebanon through its regional arms-trafficking networks, which are run by the IRGC’s Quds Force.
“Hezbollah announced that it has this UAV,” Inbar said. “Several months ago, Hezbollah’s television channel broadcast images showing an experimental attack flight in Lebanon. I can’t tell whether the images were really filmed in Lebanon, or elsewhere.
However, without a doubt, the ability to launch precise missiles from drones can be a disturbing [enemy] capability,” Inbar said.
Such a platform could “fly over Lebanon, fire a missile, and strike an Israeli bus on our side of the border,” he cautioned.
The missiles on board the Iranian drones appear to belong to the antitank missile family. It would take them approximately 30 seconds to cross from Lebanese airspace into Israel and strike an Israeli vehicle in the North, Inbar estimated.
This would represent a step up from past Hezbollah drone uses, which included attempts to send suicide bomb-laden UAVs into Israel during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, and attempts to send intelligence gathering spy drones deep into Israel in the years that followed.
Inbar declined to discuss classified countermeasures, other than to confirm that they exist, and hinted that shooting down the hostile vehicle, and detecting it early, before it has the opportunity to fire, will be a key part of any effective defense approach.
In the Gaza Strip, Hamas produces its own drones, including some that have rockets on their wings.
“They are using knowledge, likely from Iran, to self-manufacture,” Inbar said. Hezbollah, by contrast, relies on weapons smuggling from Iran exclusively for its drone fleet.
In 2012, an IAF F-16 fighter jet shot down a Hezbollah spy drone that succeeded in infiltrating southern Israel. In June 2015, a Hamas drone crash-landed in Israel, right near the Gazan border.
“I can clearly say that our enemies in the north and in the south have understood the value of drones,” Inbar said.
“It’s one thing for the IAF to intercept one, two, or three drones. But if we take a scenario in which a conflict has begun, and many jets and helicopters are in the air, where Iron Dome air defense batteries are responding to large enemy rocket barrages, here we could find the IAF challenged by drone threats,” he said.
He stressed, however, that the threat to Israel is not a strategic one. The UAVs carry small missiles, and their ability to deploy firepower against Israel is limited.
Even a successful drone attack on Israel would not be “a disaster,” Inbar said. “In terms of perception, striking a target is certainly an achievement [for the enemy]. I am sure the media would amplify this matter further,” he said.
Despite some outward resemblances, the actual difference in capabilities and operations between Iranian and Israeli drones “is enormous,” Inbar stressed. “But Iran is investing in very large funds in this industry, and it is getting results. No one has a monopoly on UAVs,” he added.
Inbar spoke ahead of the AUS&R (Autonomous, Unmanned Systems & Robotics) drone exhibition in Rishon Lezion, scheduled for September 7, which will see several types of UAVs take to the skies over central Israel for exhibition flights, and the arrival of senior drone industry figures.
Elsewhere around Israel’s vicinity, the Assad regime in Syria has deployed Russian drones against rebel organizations, and, according to reports, Egypt has purchased China’s Wing Loong medium-altitude long-endurance drone.
“We are seeing the whole area become flooded with UAVs, from small to complex systems. Certainly, the skies are filling up with them, and they are becoming more challenging,” he said.
Still, on a more reassuring note, Inbar reiterated, “This is not a heavy threat.”