The Iranian drone: When advanced technology comes back to bite us

Iran, Hezbollah and others have increasingly used drones – a technology significantly promoted by both the US and Israel.

February 11, 2018 02:44
3 minute read.

A drone (illustrative). (photo credit: INGIMAGE)


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In 2011, a captured US RQ-170 stealth drone was shot down and captured by Iran.

It was a serious embarrassment for the US at the time, but what does that have to do with Saturday’s Iranian drone and the fallout following Syria’s shooting down of an Israeli F-16 aircraft?

It was one of a few recent examples where the US or Israel has developed advanced military tech that was used against adversaries, but that eventually fell into the hands of those adversaries and came back to haunt its developers.

According to the Aviationist website, footage of the Iranian drone that infiltrated Israeli airspace on Saturday seems to indicate that it was a Saeqeh (Thunderbolt), a model that was unveiled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in 2016 and is based on the US drone shot down in 2011.

Observers have already posited that the Iranian drone may have been used to draw Israeli aircraft into a trap, where a barrage of antiaircraft missiles awaited them, leading to the first shooting down of an Israeli aircraft in 32 years.

Iran, Hezbollah and others have increasingly used drones – a technology significantly promoted by both the US and Israel.

In November, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira issued a report that the country is extremely unprepared to address the multiple threats presented by drones, either from cross-border terrorism or from unregulated and dangerous domestic use.

Regarding cross-border terrorism-style drone threats, Shapira said that the IDF “has not developed a complete response” and “needs to immediately carry out more preparatory work” to address the issue.

An Israel Air Force 2017 intelligence estimate said that the drone threat is part of a technological area advancing at an extremely fast pace that “is expected to become an integral part of the battlefield during peacetime and wartime.”

It added that the ease of access to drones and advances in technology “are expected to transform it into a key part of the enemies’ building of its capabilities.”

SINCE 2016, two Israeli defense industry businesses have developed anti-drone measures, based mostly on jamming technologies that disrupt enemy drones’ ability to continue receiving instructions from their operators.

In November 2016, Elbit Systems unveiled its ReDrone system for defending against some enemy drones.

Elbit has said that the new system is designed to identify, track and jam unmanned aerial vehicles that enter restricted and sensitive airspace.

In April 2016 and June 2017, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems announced its development of a Drone Dome system. The system uses a directed-energy and hard-kill intercept capability to detect and neutralize UAVs used by terrorists to perform aerial attacks, collect intelligence and other threatening activities. These systems have recognized limitations and are still relatively untested.

Neither anti-drone system was used on Saturday; instead, fighter jets were used. The combination of fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles has had mixed results, missing some drones that infiltrated and then succeeded in retreating from Israel.

An open question has been how well Israeli defenses would deal with multiple drones. Israel has yet to contend with the matter, but if the well-planned use of one drone in combination with antiaircraft missiles led to the downing of an Israeli aircraft, it confirms the comptroller’s criticism that Israel is not ready for the likelihood that US technology has been turned against it.

THIS FOLLOWS the Stuxnet cyberattack pattern.

According to foreign reports, the US and Israel used the Stuxnet computer worm in 2009-2010 to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program in a series of major incidents that may have set it back several years.

Initially, the cyberattack was heralded as possibly the West’s most successful in history, hampering Iran’s nuclear program and giving the West and Israel badly needed strategic time to pressure Iran while it still had not crossed the nuclear-weapons threshold.

However, Stuxnet eventually spun out of control and was identified and dissected by Iran and Russia. Top cyber experts say that some of Iran and Russia’s most successful cyber attacks have their roots in turning Stuxnet against the US and Israel–just as Iran may have done by adapting the 2011 captured US drone for its own attack-drone needs on Saturday.

Later, some US officials criticized Israel as being overeager and aggressive in deploying Stuxnet, though former Mossad deputy chief Ram Ben-Barak has disputed this accusation in comments to The Jerusalem Post.

The US and Israel can’t refrain from developing new military technologies simply to avoid their being captured by the other side. But with drones, cyber and other military tech, those who are developing and deploying these new technologies will increasingly need to consider what will happen if they are turned against their makers.

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