Israel Air Force Probe: Russian Drone Flew Over Golan Heights by Mistake

Russian drone incident in the Golan Heights shows that small unmanned aerial vehicles are still difficult to locate and identify.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Trails of a Patriot missile that was fired on a drone in northern Israel, July 17, 2016.
Trails of a Patriot missile that was fired on a drone in northern Israel, July 17, 2016.Credit: Safed municipality
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The penetration of a Russian drone into the Golan Heights about three weeks ago was very likely an error, as the Russians are claiming, according to information received by Haaretz from sources involved in the Israel Air Force’s investigation of the incident.

The probe indicates there were at least seven phone conversations on the hotline between the IAF and the Russian forces in Syria to ascertain that the drone was Russian and to send it back, but at first the Russians denied it was their drone. Only later, as Haaretz reported Sunday, did Russia admit to the drone’s entry into the airspace above the Golan and explain that it was a result of human error.

The Russian drone penetrated Israel above the border with Syria on the Golan Heights on July 17. According to the investigation the drone took off from a Russian-held base in the Damascus area. The drone crossed the border into Israel in the northern Golan Heights and continued toward the southwest, until it was identified patrolling in circles in the air above a kibbutz in the Galilee panhandle, southeast of Kiryat Shmona. At this point a pair of F-16s were sent toward it from the IAF base in Ramat David.

At the same time, IAF officers phoned members of the Russian air force, using the hotline established by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin last year, after the strengthened deployment of the Russian air force in Syria. There were at least seven phone calls in the course of about 20 minutes, but to all of them the Russians replied that none of their drones had crossed into Israeli territory.

At the same time, to make sure it was not an Israeli drone with which contact had been lost, all the Israeli drone squadrons were checked. After the possibility that it was an Israeli drone was ruled out, and the Russians failed to respond to the demand to remove it (because they didn’t identify the aircraft as one of their drones), an order was received to shoot down the aircraft.

One of the planes launched a missile but missed the target. The IAF aerial defense system was also activated, but the Patriot batteries were unable to intercept the drone. There was a problem with one of the missiles fired by the battery, while the second missile missed the target. The planes chased the drone when it backtracked eastward, toward the Syrian border, but didn’t hit it, and the drone flew into Syrian territory.

The continued surveillance of the drone led to the conclusion that the Russians had apparently crossed the border into Israel as a result of human error. The drone was identified continuing in the direction of a Syrian village held by the rebels, and conducting an aerial patrol in circles above the village, as it had done earlier above the Galilee kibbutz.

Wrong number?

The IDF figures the Russian operators mistakenly fed an incorrect number to the coordinate to which the drone was launched, and therefore it was sent to an Israeli community instead of a Syrian one. The Russians failed to identify the error at first and therefore didn’t understand what border crossing the IDF was complaining about.

An IAF investigation in the wake of the incident revealed several mistakes in the conduct of the forces involved in the attempt to intercept the drone. Among other things, there was criticism of the fact that the pair of fighter planes did not “attempt contact” sufficiently with the drone. The incident, like several drone penetrations into Israeli territory in the past, most of them by Hezbollah, shows that despite the reinforced Israel deployment to prevent penetrations, it is still difficult to locate, identify and intercept small drones in the Israeli skies. Both Hezbollah, and to a lesser degree Hamas, are equipped with drones for gathering intelligence and for attacking (“suicide” drones) during a confrontation with Israel.

The Israeli defense establishment is reluctant to provide information about the degree of coordination with the Russian air force in Syria, due to the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue. The IDF Spokesman’s Office told Haaretz it would not provide details about investigations.

According to reports in the Arab media, the Israel Air Force has continued from time to time to attack arms convoys in Syria, despite the deployment of the Russian planes, but in the past year there have been no reports of the IDF operating in the Alawite region in northwest Syria, around the cities of Latakia and Tartus, where most of the Russian bases and aircraft are concentrated.

In several instances in the past year Russian planes penetrated Israeli territory in the Golan, apparently by mistake. Israel refrained from intercepting them, and the planes left Israeli air space after the Russian operations room received a warning about the penetration from IDF officers.

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