(August 10, 2017 / JNS)
A quadcopter from the Gaza Strip landed in southern Israel earlier this month, and the IDF released a short message, saying a unit had arrived to take it away for checks. The seemingly mundane incident is, in fact, indicative of a growing trend: the use of drones by Israel’s enemies.
Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic State and other radical non-state actors have their own drone programs, each at different stages, and posing different levels of threat.
Israel is a world pioneer in the use of military drones, being the first to utilize them to coordinate strikes on the battlefield in the 1980s. Today, Israel’s drone technology is a global leader, but Israel’s enemies have begun getting in on the act, and the number of remotely controlled aircraft in their possession is growing.
Tal Inbar, head of the Space and UAV Research Center at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies in the Israeli city of Herzliya, told JNS.org about two types of developing threats. The first is the enemy use of commercial drones, such as those produced by the DJI company, which Inbar said are “very good vehicles. They are accurate, and you can plan their flight paths. Controlling them is comfortable, and they can carry payloads.”
In Syria, Islamic State has used commercial drones to drop a variety of explosives on targets, Inbar said. But even the mere presence of these drones could be used as a weapon.
“If they enter a protected area, they could disrupt something like air traffic. If you’re running Ben Gurion International Airport, and suddenly you see two to three quadcopters landing, you wouldn’t be giving anyone permission to take off or land,” said Inbar.
The second category of threat is the larger fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are present in the arsenals of Hamas and Hezbollah. Hamas has its own fixed wing drone production program in Gaza, Inbar said, describing those aircraft as “relatively simple.”
Hamas is experimenting with placing weapons under the wings of these UAVs, he added.
Hezbollah, by contrast, imports industrially produced, sophisticated Iranian-made military drones, which cost considerable money to develop. Hezbollah’s drones include guided rockets that can be launched from the UAV at targets on the ground a few miles away.
“They could, in principle, fly over Lebanon, and fire at targets in Israel,” Inbar said.
“Hamas is working on achieving that capability too. The Hamas drones have rockets, but they’re not yet guided. You don’t have to be a super engineer to improve these capabilities,” he added.
Haim Haviv, head of the Integrated Electronic Warfare Systems for Mountains Terrain program at the Israeli defense company Elbit Systems, said, “We can say that capabilities once reserved for big organizations and militaries are now in the hands of smaller groups like Hamas, ISIS (Islamic State) and others.” These elements are using “high-performance commercial drones to gather intelligence and launch strikes at people and vehicles” on the ground, he told JNS.org.
A drone purchased on eBay arrives ready to begin gathering intelligence, he said, delivering quality visual images from afar.
Dropping bombs is more complex, but can be done with some relatively simple adaptations, Haviv said.
Elbit sells a defensive counter-measure to the threat of commercial drones in the service of terrorists. It is called ReDrone, and it provides “full peripheral defense,” automatically protecting designated areas.
ReDrone detects the presence of drones using its variety of sensors, and disrupts their communications and navigational systems, blocking radio signals and satellite transmissions that the drone needs to know where to fly.
“The ReDrone system is already being sold. We are seeing a lot of interest in the solution we offer, and are in the midst of carrying out checks with a variety of clients in Israel and around the world, while continuing to develop these capabilities,” Haviv said.
Looking ahead, Haviv believes commercial drones will become involved in a growing number of security incidents.
As the threat grows, interest grows accordingly from militaries and civilian security providers, like police forces and airports. All of them are searching for ways to defend themselves.
“The future battlefield is becoming increasingly complex,” Haviv said, noting that it will be filled with autonomous drones, some of which have the ability to fly like a flock of birds in formation.
To defend an area as large as a state, fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles are the tools to get the job done, said the UAV Research Center’s Inbar. Israel has used both to shoot down enemy drones that intruded its air space from Gaza and Lebanon in recent years. In a minority of cases, the Israeli Air Force missed its target. In the future, laser guns might also play a part in shooting drones out of the sky, he said.
Inbar issued a cautionary note about what could happen during a full-scale conflict, when Israel’s skies would be crowded with incoming rockets and Israeli air defense interceptors.
“During such times, the freedom to maneuver, and the ability to send an F-16 into the sky to shoot down a drone, won’t always be there,” he said.
The future will see terrorist entities develop heavier drones armed with higher-quality weapons, and on Israel’s side, improved counter-measures, Inbar added.
One day, he said, the sight of drones defending the skies against other drones may not be science fiction.
“Not only is that possible, it is desirable,” said Inbar. “Patrolling the skies is a boring mission. If you can assign a UAV to do that, and install a lot of ammunition on it, that would be a good thing.”