Israel-Iran Drone War Goes Ballistic: A Timeline

Sam Sokol
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An unmanned aircraft is launched during a military exercise in an undisclosed location in Iran, in January 2021.
Sam Sokol
Sam Sokol
Sam Sokol
Sam Sokol

Israel and Iran’s drone war has seen a sharp escalation in recent months, with both sides increasingly using their unmanned air power to strike enemy forces.

As the military conflict between both countries becomes progressively brutal and more public, the tit-for-tat has involved strikes against infrastructure and personnel, as well as unprecedented aerial drone interceptions.

In recent years, Iran has made extensive use of armed drones in attacks throughout the Middle East. According to Israeli government sources, Iran is using drone attacks on Gulf targets staged by its proxies as a means of pressuring the United States and others into easing demands concerning its nuclear program.

Intelligence gathered in Israel shows that Iran acts to obscure its part in the attack by refraining from carrying out attacks itself, instead using proxy groups in the countries where it has set up drone bases, such as the Houthis in Yemen and Shi’ite militias in Iraq.

March 2021
Israeli jets intercept Iranian drones
F-35i "Adir" aircraft
F-35i "Adir" aircraftCredit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

The Israeli military announced that Israeli Air Force jets intercepted two Iranian drones en route to Israel in March 2021. The drones were monitored throughout their flight and intercepted by two F-35 aircraft before entering Israeli airspace "in coordination with neighboring countries," the statement said.

The drones were launched from Iranian territory and carried firearms and ammunition, in an attempt to test whether military equipment could be smuggled to Gaza via UAV, Israeli officials estimated.

January 4, 2022
Israel shoots down Hezbollah drone

The Israeli military shot down a Hezbollah quadcopter that crossed into Israel from Lebanon. The IDF said it had been “monitored by our soldiers throughout the incident.”

February 13, 2022
Iranian drone downed over Iraq
U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter flies during Chrystal Arrow 22 military drill in Adazi military base, Latvia, Friday.
U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter flies during Chrystal Arrow 22 military drill in Adazi military base, Latvia, Friday. Credit: INTS KALNINS/ REUTERS

Iraqi media reported that a U.S. Air Force F-16 downed an Iranian drone over Iraq, with Israeli broadcaster Kan asserting that the Iranian UAV had been tasked with striking “Israeli targets in the Middle East.”

February 14, 2022
Alleged Israeli strike destroys Iranian drone fleet
An Iranian drone on display outside of Tehran, in 2013.
An Iranian drone on display outside of Tehran, in 2013.Credit: Vahid Salemi / AP

An aerial attack in Iran last month caused heavy damage to the country’s drone network, with several estimates saying that hundreds of drones were destroyed. According to foreign reports, six Israeli drones struck a base in western Iran.

Tehran blamed Israel for the attack, but Israel has not admitted responsibility. Neither country had even mentioned the attack until it was reported for the first time on Sunday by the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese television station Al Mayadeen.

The New York Times later reported that some U.S. officials said the attack was has been carried out by Israeli operatives stationed in Iraq. According to another official, the site was Iran's main manufacturing and storage plant for military drones.  

February 18, 2022
Hezbollah drone enters Israeli airspace

A Hezbollah drone eluded early-detection systems to enter Israeli territory. It photographed several locations in the country's north before returning to Lebanon allegedly untouched, according to a subsequent report by a Lebanese newspaper with close ties to Hezbollah.

The report in Al-Akhbar said the Israel Defense Forces were taken by surprise by what it called a “radio-controlled aircraft,” setting off sirens in the north. According to the Al-Akhbar report, both an Iron Dome missile fired at the drone and an F-16 fighter jet failed to intercept it, as did a subsequent attempt by Apache helicopters.

In an apparent warning to Hezbollah, Israeli warplanes later flew at low altitude over Beirut.

March 8 2022
Israeli strike in Syria kills two Revolutionary Guard members
An airstrike in Syria, 2022
An airstrike in Syria, 2022Credit: Hassan Ammar/AP

Two members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard were killed in a (non-drone) airstrike strike near Damascus, Iranian media reported, prompting the Iranians to vow to "make the Zionist regime pay for this crime.”

March 13, 2022
Iran launches ballistic missiles at 'Israeli strategic centers' in Iraq
View of a damaged building in the aftermath of missile attacks in Irbil, Iraq, on Tuesday.
View of a damaged building in the aftermath of missile attacks in Irbil, Iraq, on Tuesday. Credit: AZAD LASHKARI/ REUTERS

As many as 12 missiles were fired toward the U.S. consulate in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, in an attack subsequently described by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a strike against Israeli "strategic centers.”

Al Mayadeen cited Iranian sources as saying that the attack was not retaliation for Israel's alleged killing of the two Iranian Revolutionary Guard members, but rather for other Israeli operations against Iranian targets. It stated that the ballistic missiles were fired at Mossad headquarters in Irbil, killing four Israeli officers and wounding seven. It declined to provide any proof for its assertions of Israeli casualties or a Mossad presence in the city.

Officials in Iraq and the United States gave different accounts of damage. A second U.S. official said there was no damage and no casualties at any U.S. government facility, but Iraqi officials said several missiles had hit the new, currently unoccupied U.S. consulate building.