A Feb. 10 military fracas that involved Syria, Iran, and Israel yielded an impressive amount of destruction: An Iranian drone and command center, Syrian anti-aircraft batteries, and even an Israeli F-16 fighter jet were lost in the escalating clashes.
The implications of these hostilities are expansive, but it’s worth narrowing in on the impetus for the entire sequence of events: the Iranian drone.
Drones have become commonplace in modern warfare, with more than a dozen countries employing armed drones to date. Proliferation of armed drones throughout the world is a growing concern, but what’s more worrisome is the rapidly evolving drone threat in the Middle East, where drones were first used in military operations, and evidence that several Middle Eastern terrorist groups are building up their own drone capabilities.
Israel’s Pioneering Role
Israel is a leading practitioner of drone warfare as well as a leading target for drone threats. Many of the terrorist groups that have acquired drone arsenals are dedicated to destroying Israel and operate close to its borders.
Israel was the first country in the world to employ a drone—or unmanned aerial vehicle—in a military operation. In 1969, the Israeli Defense Forces deployed toy airplanes with cameras mounted on them to spy on Egyptian army positions along the Suez Canal. Drones have played a significant role in Israeli military planning since the early 1970s.
During Israel’s 1982 war in Lebanon, drones were deployed as decoys to confuse and help locate Syrian anti-aircraft missile batteries. Since 1985, Israel has been the world’s largest exporter of drones, including sales to the United States and many NATO members.
Israel has developed increasingly sophisticated drones, including the Heron TP, which has an 85-foot wingspan and can carry a one-ton payload and fly for 24 hours. Israel also has developed a robotic snake to infiltrate and map tunnels and underground bunkers, as well as unmanned ground vehicles. The Guardium, a robot dune buggy-like vehicle mounted with sensors, cameras, and weapons already has been deployed to patrol Israel’s borders.
Iran has developed a drone arsenal that is surpassed only by Israel’s in the Middle East. It has produced a wide variety of drones, including one it claims it reverse-engineered from a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone that crashed inside Iran in 2011.
Until last month, Tehran refrained from directly threatening Israel with drones, preferring to operate indirectly through proxies. It has transferred an unknown number of reconnaissance and “suicide” drones to Hezbollah, Hamas, and other client groups.
Hezbollah was the first terrorist group to deploy military-grade drones. Iran has provided Hezbollah with increasingly sophisticated drones since 2002, and some have been deployed over Israel since at least 2004.
During Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah, several drones carrying explosive warheads were shot down over northern Israel.
Hezbollah launched a “Mirsad 1” drone into Israel from Lebanon in 2004, another in 2005, then three in 2006. The 2006 incidents were especially problematic, as these were equipped with “40-50kg explosive warheads.” Hezbollah also launched reconnaissance drones to penetrate Israeli airspace in 2012 and 2013 and has deployed them in Syria, where it is heavily committed.
Like Hezbollah, Hamas owns and operates its own military-grade Iranian drones, along with an assortment of smaller homegrown drones. A video released by the organization shows what appears to be the flight of a relatively large drone armed with missiles.
During the 2014 Gaza war, Israel used a Patriot missile to destroy a Hamas drone near the port city of Ashdod. Israel also downed at least one Hamas drone last year and one in September 2016.
Iran also has provided drones, arms, and ballistic missiles to the Houthi rebels fighting against Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Last year, the Houthis released a video of a January 2017 attack by three explosive-laden, remotely operated unmanned maritime craft on an unsuspecting Saudi frigate. Two crewmembers were killed and three others were injured.
Just two days before this assault, the United Arab Emirates air force shot down an Iranian drone launched from the Yemeni city of Mokha. Iran has been smuggling weapons and deploying military advisers to Yemen to assist the Houthis fighting the Saudi-backed government.
Last year, ISIS officially unveiled its “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen,” a new unit mainly comprised of commercial drones that are crudely weaponized. A makeshift factory that supported this unit discovered in Mosul housed primitive aerial and ground-based drones along with an assortment of drone-building materials.
ISIS has mounted several drone attacks, including one in 2016 in which a drone that was shot down by Kurdish militia fighters subsequently exploded, killing two. ISIS also has strapped explosives to drones, which resulted in destruction to property and equipment.
ISIS has recorded several of its recent drone strike attacks from the point of view of the drones themselves. Commercial drones, such as the DJI Phantom, which can be purchased for about $1,000, have been a popular choice for ISIS.
Given the proliferation of drone technology among terrorist organizations, especially those hostile to the West, the long-term implications for civilian populations are sobering.
In September 2017, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that terrorists overseas now use drones and characterized a threat to the U.S. homeland via drones as “imminent.”
Wray’s testimony was followed by a November 2017 bulletin released by the Department of Homeland Security that warned that terrorist groups were applying “overseas battlefield experience to pursue new technologies and tactics, such as unmanned aerial systems.”
A Growing Reality
Drones, which are becoming cheaper and more versatile, are likely to play an expanding role in future regional conflicts and terrorist attacks.
Drones also pose a rising threat to homeland security. The regulation of drones is still murky territory, and Congress needs to debate how to properly balance freedom with security in the face of the growing drone threat.
Given the surging commercial availability of drones and the track record of terrorist groups that have acquired drones, a drone attack on a major population center, either in the Middle East or at home, seems inevitable unless the threat is given due attention and effective countermeasures are implemented.