Drone Air Forces Are Taking Off Across the Mideast, Challenging Israeli Defenses

From what was thought of as some sci-fi fantasy, drones have rapidly become a weapon of choice in the Middle East. While the Israeli military is underprepared, one official says a 'drone swarm' attack may be 'right around the corner'

An army of drones. Illustration
Shutterstock

In October 2016, 103 perfectly synchronized drones flew over a military facility in California. Passersby presumably didn’t know what was happening or why. Only three months later was the success of this aerial display, and the algorithms behind it, made public.

That was less than three years ago, but drones now seem routine. Kids fly them for fun; media outlets film with them. Nevertheless, the technology also poses threats.

The U.S. military's October 2016 drone display.

Last December, for instance, a drone disrupted operations at London’s Gatwick Airport, shutting it down for more than a day. And Iran’s plan to attack Israel by launching explosive-laden drones from Syria last weekend, which the Israel Defense Forces said it thwarted, shows how countries and organizations are now using drones for intelligence gathering, deterrence and attacks.

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Another example, in which Israel wasn’t involved, occurred in December 2017. Fifteen drones attacked Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in Syria, damaging planes and other equipment. Russia claimed a state actor was behind the attack, but many intelligence agencies think a non-state actor was responsible.

That attack epitomized the growing ability of non-state actors to create “air forces.” Drones aren’t F-35s that can bomb faraway cities, but they can cause damage.

“The conventional scenario is passé,” former Deputy Chief of Staff Moshe Kaplinksy said recently. Consequently, he warned, the Israeli defense establishment must start paying attention to the weapons of the weak, from homemade rockets to drones. The latter can also perform complex intelligence tasks.

An Israeli military drone intercepts a kite launched from the Gaza Strip said to be carrying explosives, southern Israel, August 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Given its capabilities, a drone is cheap, costing between a few thousand to a few tens of thousands of shekels. It can’t fly as far or carry as much as a plane or helicopter. But because drones are so easily obtainable, the world, and especially the Middle East, now views them as serious weapons.

Consequently, national armies also use them. The IDF operates thousands of drones. Ground troops use the Mavic Pro, which costs around 20,000 shekels ($5,700), but many units use cheaper models readily available on the civilian market.

Most of the IDF’s current drones are Chinese-made. Though cheap and convenient, they have encryption problems, creating fears that sensitive information could leak.

Consequently, they’re eventually slated to be replaced with bigger Israeli-made drones that can fly farther, stay in the air longer and carry more weight. Elbit’s Tzur drone, for instance, can carry 3.5 kilograms, can fly up to 10 kilometers from the control center and reach a height of 10,000 feet.

But Chinese drones are certainly good enough for non-state actors that lack the IDF’s massive budget. In the past, aerial photography for intelligence purposes required a multimillion-dollar spy plane. Today, any organization can buy a drone with a camera and use it without any prior knowledge.

“A drone swarm from Gaza or Lebanon toward IDF troops or an Israeli town is a dramatic incident for us,” a defense official said prior to last weekend’s Iranian incident, in which Israel said it foiled a drone attack from Syria, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, intended to target northern Israel.

Drones on display during the Consumer Electronics Expo in Beijing, August 2, 2019.
Fred Dufour/AFP

“This threat is right around the corner. The ability already exists; it doesn’t cost a lot to buy them. Therefore, we’re preparing for this threat.”

The Iranian incident underscores how urgent this is. “Israel needs ways to deal effectively with multiplying threats on a large scale, including with groups or swarms of drones,” Dr. Liran Antabi, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, wrote recently. “Israel must start from the assumption that this trend will continue influencing the international theater and even intensify.”

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Currently, Israel has no good answer to this threat. Local defense industries are already at work developing such systems, and Israel Aerospace Industries has even given the IDF an experimental system that has been used operationally. But it’s a complicated problem.

One major obstacle is that unlike large planes, drones have a low radar signature, making them very hard to intercept. The defense establishment therefore recently asked civilian companies if they had any existing systems or ideas that might be relevant.

The difficulty of locating drones once they’re launched means the IDF might not have been able to stop last weekend’s attack had it not had advance intelligence that enabled it to strike before the drones were launched. Consider last month’s incident, in which a drone entered Israel from Lebanon and then returned. The IDF said the drone was “being monitored,” but to this day, it refuses to say how far into Israel it penetrated or who was operating it.

One possibility is Hezbollah. It uses simple drones that cost a few hundred dollars for observation and attack, but also sophisticated UAVs for intelligence gathering that it gets from Iran. During the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah demonstrated significant improvement in its drone capabilities.

A DJI Phantom 4 drone, also used by the Israeli army, February 2017.
Gad Ganir

Writing in the journal Maarachot in April 2018, Maj. Gen. Kobi Barak warned that the enemy can now “operate simple aerial forces from concealed locations.”

Obviously, the threat isn’t only from the north. Since March 2018, around 10 drones carrying explosives have penetrated Israel from the Gaza Strip, including one found in the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council in May 2018.

Over the past half year, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have used drones several times. In March, for instance, a drone was spotted in Gaza heading toward the Kerem Shalom border crossing. The last reported incident was in July, when the IDF said a drone entered Israel from Gaza and then returned.

Thus it’s no surprise that a senior Southern Command officer recently voiced concern about Hamas’ use of drones. He warned that Israelis’ sense of security would be eroded if they were vulnerable to easily operated aerial weapons.

The Gaza Division recently set up a special command to locate drones headed for Israel. But last month’s incident, in which the drone entered Israel and returned to Gaza unharmed, shows how hard it is for the IDF to provide an operational response to this threat.

The demand for a solution isn’t new. Back in 2017, then-State Comptroller Joseph Shapira harshly criticized the slow pace of the defense establishment’s preparations for the drone threat. The defense establishment hadn’t yet even identified drones as a threat. But the comptroller’s report warned that terrorist organizations had already discovered their advantages.

“Disagreements arose between the IDF and the police over responsibility for dealing with the threat from drones originating inside the country, and neither viewed itself as responsible for this matter,” Shapira wrote. “Thus terrorists or criminals might exploit this situation.”

“The air force still has no complete solution for defending against the drone threat,” he added. “Because of the IDF’s assessment that the drone threat is a unique, worrisome and developing one, and because the IDF still has no complete response to the threat, the risk that drone use by the enemy will remain without a sufficient response is growing.”