It’s not a coincidence that the head of US Central Command has been warning about drone threats and that the US and Israel are increasingly working on efforts to confront drones.
A readout of US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s bilateral meeting with Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat on April 27 revealed that the “United States and Israel agreed to establish an interagency working group to focus particular attention on the growing threat of unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs] and precision-guided missiles produced by Iran and provided to its proxies in the Middle East region.”
The decision to try to counter UAVs or drones has been in the works for years. Back in 2018, Congress first authorized a cooperative US-Israeli Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems (C-UAS) program. This was done by “expanding the scope of the anti-tunnel cooperation program, [and] then, in the FY2020 NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act],” the Congressional Research Service notes.
“Congress created a separate authority (Section 1278), which authorized the secretary of defense to ‘carry out research, development, test, and evaluation activities, on a joint basis with Israel, to establish capabilities for countering unmanned aerial systems that threaten the United States or Israel.”
Section 1278 requires a matching contribution from the government of Israel and caps the annual US contribution at $25 million. Congress authorized the program through 2024,” it said.
CENTCOM HEAD Gen. Kenneth McKenzie has become a kind of prophet of counter-drone discussions because he keeps warning about the growing threat. In March, he spoke to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Tom Cotton noted that while the US had spent “billions” on counter-drone technology, there was still a threat. McKenzie had in fact already warned in writing that drones are “the most concerning tactical development in the CENTCOM area of operations since the rise of the improvised explosive device.”
Responding to Cotton, the general said, “I think the key thing is [that] right now we’re simply at a stage in the development of systems, and you see it in the back-and-forth of warfare, where the advantage is with the operator and with the offense. We will catch up; it’s going to take us a little time to do that.
“And, really, it’s what we would call the Group 1 and Group 2s that concern me the most; the small ones that you can go and buy at Costco – you know, duct-tape a grenade or a mortar bomb to it and fly it into an objective,” he said. “The larger ones, we have ways to deal with them because they’re like aircraft in a traditional way – although they’re still very concerning.”
McKenzie doubled down in more testimony to the House in April.
“These small- and medium-sized UAVs proliferating across the [area of operations] present a new and complex threat to our forces and those of our partners and allies,” he told the House Armed Services Committee on April 20. “For the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority.”
The work between the US and Israel on this issue is important because the rise of Iranian drone threats is increasingly bedeviling US partners in the region. Tehran knows this and keeps unveiling more and more drones.
Iran has a seemingly endless amount of drones these days; it used them against Saudi Arabia in 2019 and also sent a drone from Syria’s T-4 base into Israeli airspace in February 2018. On April 28, the IDF said that it had “downed a drone and located an additional drone belonging to the Hezbollah terrorist organization that crossed from Lebanon into Israeli airspace.”
The threat is clear. In January a report at Newsweek indicated Iran may have exported a new type of drone to Yemen, one capable of reaching Israel.
MCKENZIE HAS warned about various types of drones, including those purchased off the shelf and then modified by terrorists.
The Iran threat is more complex, consisting of larger drones. Iran has been building them for years, going back to the 1980s when it first developed its Ababil and Mohajer programs. The Islamic Republic also has advanced drones dubbed part of its Shahed line, including the Shahed 171, which is a copy of America’s secretive RQ-170, and the Shahed 129, which is a copy of the Predator.
Iran sent so much drone technology to Yemen that the Houthis became one of the region’s leaders in using kamikaze drones. Furthermore, there was so much evidence of the Iranian link, including gyroscopes, that some of the wreckage of these Iranian drones was carted off to Washington, put on display in the Iran Materials Display at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling – or what some affectionately call the “petting zoo.”
According to the Department of Defense, there are remains of a Shahed-123 unmanned aerial vehicle, shown in a 218 photo. “The Department of Defense established the Iranian Materiel Display in December 2017 to present evidence that Iran is arming dangerous groups with advanced weapons, spreading instability and conflict in the region. The IMD contains materiel associated with Iranian proliferation into Yemen, Afghanistan and Bahrain.”
There are other drones as well, including a Qasef-1, a drone the Houthis use that is derived from an Ababil. The Foreign Policy Research Institute called the Iran drone technology proliferation “low tech, high reward.”
Last week, Iran’s IRGC released new images it says were taken by a drone of a US aircraft carrier. The same thing was done back in September 2020. Now Iran is upping harassment of US ships again in the Gulf. Drones may play a greater role in that harassment.
WHAT WE know is that Iran’s drone arm is large, expanding and proficient. The drones have a long-range capability, and they have successfully evaded Saudi radar to strike at Abqaiq in 2019. They can be used in swarms and with cruise missiles. They fly to their target with a warhead on board, so they are essentially kamikaze drones that behave more like a cruise missile. They don’t have to communicate with their base, meaning that jamming them may not work. They have to be shot down.
The recent case of a Syrian S-200 missile flying deep into Israel illustrates the problem. Drones are slower than an S-200. Patriot missiles and Israel’s other air defense systems have been used against drone threats and Israel increasingly practices using air defense systems against drones.
Israel has a wide variety of counter-drone technology. This includes not only the missile defenses, like Iron Dome, but also systems designed to counter smaller drones, such as IAI’s Drone Guard, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems’ Drone Dome, Elbit Systems ReDrone, the innovated Smart Shooter system for rifles, the Xtend company’s Skylord system, and others. Israel usually distinguishes between smaller “drones” such as quadcopters and larger UAVs, a category under which Iran’s drones would likely fall.
The technology needed to stop a large, fixed-wing drone that may be flying fast is different than what is needed against a slow-moving but highly maneuverable quadcopter with a grenade on it. Nevertheless, with a crowded airspace, and small birds that sometimes can be mistaken for drones, the challenge is growing. You can shoot drones down, jam them, use lasers, missiles, guns, nets, and even other drones to kill drones. The question for the US and Israel may be whether and how to settle on several technologies that mesh well.
That Washington and Jerusalem are looking increasingly at how to bring all this together makes sense since Israeli defense companies already supply counter-drone technology to the US, and America has likewise supported Israeli air defense systems.