The democratization and development of drone warfare among West Asia’s resistance factions present a grave threat to the airspace security of their regional foes, notably Israel, vis-à-vis the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance in particular.
In this sense, it is not just conventional, ballistic, or surface-to-surface precision guided missiles that threatens Israel, the state that once enjoyed qualitative military superiority in the region’s skies, and which, over the years of conflict with Arab states, excelled in aerial warfare.
Indeed the proliferation of lethal yet cost-effective, “kamikaze” drones are the new and evolving threat to Israel, spelling the end of the short-lived monopoly it once relished.
Hezbollah drones, activated
On 2 July, Lebanon’s resistance movement Hezbollah dispatched three unarmed drones over the Karish gas field, in the disputed maritime economic zone between Lebanon and northern Israel.
The reconnaissance drones’ flight close to the Energean production vessel reinforced the Jewish state’s fears of the potential danger posed by drones. Overnight, Tel Aviv also realized that Hezbollah is very serious about carrying out its threat to prevent Israel from extracting gas from the disputed field.
The incident took place shortly before negotiations kick off on delineating a shared maritime border, and on granting permission to foreign companies to start exploring and extracting gas in Lebanese territorial waters.
A history of infiltrating Israel
Hezbollah began working on building its air force many years ago under the supervision of Hassan Lakkis, who was assassinated by Israel in Beirut in 2013. Despite this set-back, Israel’s insecurities have only escalated, as the resistance group continues to amass advanced, lethal, air force capabilities, with a high chance of evading Tel Aviv’s radar networks.
A Lebanese military source tells The Cradle that since the 1990s, many drones dispatched from Lebanon or Syria have penetrated or flown close to Israel’s airspace.
In recent years, several remarkable incidents were recorded in which espionage drones penetrated sensitive areas above the airspace of the Jewish state.
In 2012, for instance, the “Ayoub” drone (named after Hezbollah martyr Hussein Ayoub) flew over the Negev in southern Israel. The drone successfully managed to confuse and deceive Israeli air defense systems, early warning devices, and other technical and electronic means concerned with air defense.
A more recent example took place in early 2022, when a Hezbollah spy drone infiltrated Israeli airspace for 30 minutes, reaching close to the northern city of Safed without detection by Israeli radars.
The Israeli Air Force was forced to carry out costly sorties to bring down the small drone worth hundreds of dollars, without success.
Sending a message
During his speech on 13 July, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s message was clear: No one would be allowed to operate in maritime oil and gas fields if Lebanon was barred from its right to extract energy resources off of its own coast.
The Karish incident early this month was arguably both an espionage raid and a highly accurate political-military security message in its own right.
In its daring operation, Hezbollah calculatingly dispatched three drones of varying sizes and types, flying at different heights, over the disputed Karish gas field. And the resistance group intentionally made it possible for Israeli radar networks to detect the aerial unmanned vehicles in order to gauge Israel’s response capabilities.
Israeli reactions varied between those who considered the drones a serious threat, and those who downplayed the danger, possibly to preserve their military’s prestige that has systematically eroded over years of conflict with Palestine and Lebanon.
And while it is true that Israeli air defenses were eventually able to shoot down the unarmed aircraft after great effort and technical difficulties, as revealed by the Hebrew press, this is only one small part of the story…
Breaking News: Hebrew media claims that the Israeli army shot down three UAVs operated by Hezbollah, heading towards Karish gas field. pic.twitter.com/yfDi6CROpb
— The Cradle (@TheCradleMedia) July 2, 2022
Hezbollah’s Air Force
The reason Hezbollah sent three different types of drones to Karish was to activate Israeli and American air defense and electronic jamming systems in the region (even their air force), and to test their ability to move, coordinate, and respond within a given time frame. The exercise also intended to test the extent to which these systems are linked to each other.
This meant that Hezbollah had to intentionally leave the drones exposed as easy targets for these systems.
On 25 July, during a live TV interview on Al Mayadeen channel, Nasrallah revealed for the first time that over the “past few years” Hezbollah’s drones “went to occupied Palestine and returned dozens of times without being shot down.”
He then went on to explain their modus operandi in the Karish operation:
“Our two goals of sending the drones are, one, we want to show that we can take this step (escalation), and two, we want the Israelis to fire on that front (near the gas fields). What we did is that we made(forced) the Israelis to open fire…Surely, they fell into the trap…The Air Force planes, F35, and F16, were used to shoot down a drone but could not shoot down the second, so they used the naval surface-to-air missiles (Barak) to shoot down the second. As for the third — let me reveal new information — they did not shoot it down at all, it was of a small type, it went on track and ran out of fuel and fell into the sea, that’s why (the Israelis) only speak of two drones that were shot down.”
The Aramco incident
The attack on the Aramco oil processing facilities in Abqaiq (eastern Saudi Arabia) in September 2019, was perhaps the first major incident of its kind in which sophisticated, precision drones were used in conjunction with a mix of ballistic and cruise missiles.
The attack, which was initially inaccurately attributed to Iran, but later claimed by Yemen’s Ansarallah movement, caused extensive damage to the oil facilities, shocking the global oil markets and hampering oil production in Saudi Arabia.
It was also an game-changing event on the regional military level. If the Yemeni rural highlanders that make up the core of Ansarallah had these advanced capabilities, so too would other groups within their regional alliance – Hezbollah included.
— The Cradle (@TheCradleMedia) March 25, 2022
In fact, the Israeli army fears that Hezbollah is a key partner, technically and scientifically, in developing Yemeni drones that have succeeded in overcoming the American defense systems employed by Saudi Arabia, including the lauded Patriot missiles.
Israel considered the attack a frightening development in drone warfare, especially as practiced by its opponents. The incident also heightened fears that a similar attack might be repeated on sensitive Israeli facilities, such as the nuclear reactor in Dimona and oil facilities at sea.
Although Ansarallah claimed responsibility for the Aramco attack, US officials initially suggested that they were launched from Iraq. The weapons used were similar to those of Ansarallah forces in Yemen and some Iraqi military factions.
For several years now, the Ansarallah-aligned Yemeni army have succeeded in threatening all major Saudi cities and regions with ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and long-range drones, which enabled them to target points in the kingdom’s strategic depth.
“Made in West Asia”
Tel Aviv has been watching these developments, especially the recent raid on Karish, with great apprehension. In Israel, there are those who believe that Hezbollah no longer needs to find creative ways to transfer Iranian military systems to Lebanon, after Nasrallah announced earlier that drones are now being manufactured inside the country.
Adding to Israel’s anxiety, two weeks after the Karish events, Iran announced a naval unit specialized in launching drones as a strategic weapon in the Iranian armed forces.
The Aramco attack only enhanced the regional reputation of these weapons and their ability to repeatedly infiltrate Israel’s airspace. This caught the attention of Russia, which reportedly plans to acquire Iranian drones and has requested training for Russian crews on how to operate them.
While Ukrainian forces have now tested the domestically-manufactured Turkish Bayraktar drones, unlike the successes achieved by Iranian drones, Bayraktar appears to have performed poorly against the extensive Russian air defense systems.
The reputation the Turkish drone earned from the battles of Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Nagarno-Karabakh region were cut short in Ukraine, as the former’s success was largely due to the absence of an effective Armenian air defense network.
The aerial battles yet to come
During the July War of 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah, no decisive impact was recorded with Hezbollah drones in its battles with the Israeli army. But sixteen years on, Hezbollah appears to be an army with an air force of more than 2,000 drones – according to Israeli estimates – with several launch sites, whether from runways or vertical take-off platforms, inside and outside Lebanon.
After Israel’s cultivated image of its ground forces was shaken, and its limited naval power was exposed in recent brief naval engagements with the Iranians, Tel Aviv is now set to lose the stable, controlled skies it once took for granted.
In the next conflict between the two foes, it is certain that Hezbollah’s arsenal of lethal drones – both kamikaze and those capable of aerial bombardment – combined with ballistic and precision missiles, will be able to threaten all strategic facilities across occupied Palestine.
But this scenario only assumes the participation of one of Tel Aviv’s adversaries: Hezbollah. What will the next war look like over Israeli skies if the fronts with Syria, Lebanon, Gaza – even Iraq, Iran, and Yemen – are activated in concert?