A battle of intelligence, operations and narratives

An analysis of the Iranian UAV incident and its ramifications.

Israel intercepts an Iranian drone over its airspace and destroys the caravan unit that operated it (IDF Sokesperson's Office)
MORE THAN a decade ago, I attended a combined American-Israeli session following a US Special Forces raid on a terror stronghold in Iraq.
Aerial imagery of the assault showed helicopters landing simultaneously in a confined compound. I literally jumped out of my seat when a Black Hawk grazed a wall and crash-landed in the courtyard. But to my surprise, my counterparts related to this as a negligible event, and only pointed to lessons learned for improvement.
The mission was a major success. One helicopter totaled? No big deal. An inevitable consequence of war. I view recent events in the north in a similar light.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, February 10, an Iranian UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) took off from T-4 air base near Palmyra, Syria. It entered Israeli airspace flying low via a mountainous route in order to avoid detection.
But the drone was tracked by multiple Israeli sensors from well within Syria, and it was shot down by an Apache attack helicopter. The exact location and method of interception were probably due to a combination of considerations – avoid collateral damage, incriminate Iran’s blatant infringement, and perhaps minimize damage to the UAV for intelligence gathering purposes.
The IDF intercepted several hostile drones in recent years, including an Iranian-made Ababil launched by Hezbollah, but this was the first Iranian asset directly operated by Iranian forces (not “advisors”).
The incident unmasked Iranian intentions and actions. The Ayatollah regime no longer only funds, directs and manipulates proxies, but directly threatens and confronts Israel with “boots on the ground,” and violates Israeli sovereignty. Iran’s goal is regional hegemony, and it is building and strengthening its presence and assets throughout the Middle East.
The Iranian drone (inset) that entered Israeli airspace yesterday was launched from a Syrian base in the Homs desert, which Israel later bombed / IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT
The Iranian drone (inset) that entered Israeli airspace yesterday was launched from a Syrian base in the Homs desert, which Israel later bombed / IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT
IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING the interception, IAF jets destroyed the mobile control station and other Iranian components deep inside Syria.
Following a directive from the highest levels, Syrian air defense launched multiple missiles at the Israeli jets flying over northern Israel. (Most media animations now mistakenly portray Israeli jets deep inside Syria, when in fact nowadays bombs autonomously make their way to designated targets after being released from many miles away.) One missile, probably an SA-5, hit an Israeli F-16I and the wounded pilots ejected from the crippled plane.
This development then led to an attack on Syrian air-defense systems, on a scale last seen in the First Lebanon War in 1982. Syria naturally still conceals the true extent of the damage, and we choose not to rub their nose in it in order to enable an honorable de-escalation.
The downed UAV was probably the Iranian Saegheh, a reversed-engineered version of the American RQ-170 Sentinel, captured by Iran in 2011.
The Iranian objective has not yet been revealed, but it’s possible that the idea was to test Israeli capabilities, and score a perceptional victory by penetrating and exiting Israeli airspace unscathed. Another plausible option is that Tehran set out to reshuffle the rules of the game, wishing to curtail Israel’s obvious freedom of action in Syria.
I believe that Iran underestimated the Israeli response, and now realizes that Israel’s red lines, though somewhat vaguely defined, are going to be firmly upheld by Jerusalem. In a way, Iran should not have been surprised by the scope of our response, as it was totally consistent with Israeli doctrine – if you target Israel you will be targeted back.
At least as far as public image goes, Iran failed miserably. There’s not much pride in copying some else’s technology and then failing to field it effectively. I do not ridicule everything Iran does, but they have a record of boasting of technological feats, even when presenting ridiculous fiberglass mock-ups.
Drones are gaining popularity and are relatively easy to operate, but not all pose a serious threat, and so far their impact has been more psychological.
But detecting and shooting them down is extremely challenging, and Israel once again demonstrated an outstanding defense array. By the way, it should be clear that someday someone will manage to penetrate Israeli airspace with a drone. So what?
The Israel Air Force also demonstrated an impressive ability to eliminate any set of targets, no matter how far.
But the most impressive aspect of the UAV incident was the comprehensive enabling of kinetic action. The fact that we knew where it was launched from, what components were involved, and who was controlling it reflects astounding capabilities.
Iran was keen on sending us a message, but instead ended up receiving one, which, I have no doubt, is currently being carefully assessed in Tehran.
Missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran / NAZANIN TABATABAEE YAZDI/ TIMA VIA REUTERS
Missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran / NAZANIN TABATABAEE YAZDI/ TIMA VIA REUTERS
We tend to focus on “air superiority” and glorify the “trigger-pullers” but we must remember that without technological supremacy, there is nothing. Merging this with operational capabilities is what leads to mission success.
Similar accomplishments are demonstrated on a daily basis, as the Shin Bet exposes and thwarts multiple terror attacks before they ever materialize. The fact that once in a while a single assailant gets through does not diminish the incredible achievement of rendering the entire arena relatively calm.
As for concerns about the erosion of Israel’s air superiority, some perspective is due. Because of Israel’s overwhelming capabilities and almost flawless track record, rare instances are mistakenly perceived as reflecting a breakdown or flaw. But just like with our American friends, this is the inevitable, inherent nature of warfare, and once in while a plane, a helicopter, a tank or a ship are going to get hit.
We have state-of-the-art detection and deflection systems, but nothing is foolproof. There is a constant battle of wits, and race for technological advantage, but we always maintain the upper hand. I remember an era when we flew freely over hostile territory, and then the incremental growth as more and more advanced weapons came online. I saw salvos of projectiles streak by my helicopter, as well as our detection systems flashing and screaming when anti-aircraft systems locked on during combat. The challenges always increased, but we were always one step ahead, and flew wherever necessary.
I’ve heard concerns over IAF morale, questions about threat assessment, and speculation on if and what errors led to losing the jet. The IAF rightfully keeps the details under wraps, but here’s what I know they did – they performed a thorough debriefing and analyzed what happened, why it happened, and how to do it better next time. The outcome was then immediately injected into all squadrons and incorporated into the doctrine.
As for risk assessment, I have sat in the Air Force main control room during operations in Syria. Complacency was never to be seen and no aspect of the mission was overlooked.
As for morale – give me a break! Remember the American Black Hawk? It’s debrief, lessons learned, and on to the next mission.
A soldier watches a drill with a Blackhawk helicopter, July 2017/ IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT
A soldier watches a drill with a Blackhawk helicopter, July 2017/ IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT
Some have made the argument that overall, moneywise, it wasn’t worth losing an F-16. Well, this kind of cost-effectiveness calculation is fundamentally flawed. Israel’s goal is to sustain and protect our homeland and Israeli citizens and residents, as our sovereignty and very existence are constantly questioned and challenged. If this was merely about financial efficiency, or prosperity, we could have moved to Canada or Denmark. By the way, each improvised rocket fired by terrorists, costs several hundred dollars, and is shot down by an advanced interceptor, which costs tens of thousands of dollars. Defense is always more expensive than offense, as you must carry out broad activities against an unknown, random threat.
We are in fact engaged in a prolonged campaign of various intensities, from what we call “routine security” to all-out war. In recent years, the “campaign between wars” has become a key factor in promoting Israeli interests, mainly by thwarting emerging threats. Of course we dream of peace, strive to prolong periods of “calm” and promote stability, but “quiet” is certainly not our ultimate goal – at least not a temporary lull, which can be exploited for building dangerous capabilities.
THE IRAN-ISRAEL confrontation is now transitioning to a new phase. After years of exchanging blows by proxies and activating covert and clandestine means, an overt and direct engagement is now materializing.
Many in Israel are skeptical of our ability to truly influence the Iranian footprint in Syria, but I believe there’s much more going on than meets the eye. Israel has been working closely with allies in the diplomatic arena, and making very clear and decisive moves on the ground, demonstrating what the red lines are and the ramifications of crossing them.
Of course, there is a limit to our influence, and our leadership must make tough decisions, but we are certainly influential, not only consequential. It is impossible to assess what Iran’s presence would have been if it were not for Israel’s actions. We should stay the course and deny Iran’s foothold, as well as continue to sever channels used to supply Hezbollah with strategic, balance- tipping weapons.
The UAV incident was not a singular event but a milestone in a spiral towards war. Most analysts assess that Israel’s strategic situation has never been better – as far as regional opportunities, military might, technological dominance, and international allies. Still, a positive strategic posture does not necessarily mean peace and quiet.
Currently the actors have no interest to escalate to an all-out war with Israel. Syria, Hezbollah and Iran have too much to lose. Russian interests would not be served by war, and they are the ones calling the shots. So at least in the short run, the UAV incident falls into the category of “day of battle.” But a miscalculation may always trigger broader ramifications than intended, including war.
Even if such battle days eventually lead to war, we must not wallow in thoughts of an existential nature. The next war will certainly be devastating, and the Israeli homefront will sustain an unprecedented barrage of rockets and missiles. But I believe that Israelis will pull through and demonstrate resilience. The State of Israel does not face an existential threat, which may only materialize if Iran ever acquires nuclear weapons. This is why we must do whatever it takes to deny them such capabilities.
Israel’s technological supremacy is stupefying, with a range of capabilities kept at bay and saved for a “doomsday” scenario. Although I dislike haughty threats by Israeli politicians, our enemies had best internalize that they are not bluffing.
With all this talk of technology and weapons, it’s important to remember that the main confrontation is currently a battle of narratives, symbols and stamina.
As events unfolded on Saturday, February 10, thousands of Israelis and tourists did not alter their plans, and enjoyed a beautiful sunny day in the Galilee, on the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon. For me, this was the most significant response.
The writer is a cross-cultural strategist, and a former pilot in the Israel Air Force.