The Hezbollah spy drone that the Israel Defense Forces downed on the Lebanese border on Tuesday afternoon is the fifth to suffer a similar fate within a year. The IDF does not elaborate on how it brings down the drones, but based on the military use made of drones in other countries, it can be conjectured that what’s at work here is a combination of electronic warfare and perhaps, at times, also kinetic intercept means.
The use of drones to gather intelligence and sometimes also to mount precise attacks on small targets, is now common in all the combat zones in the region. In the continuous friction between Israel and Hezbollah, they serve the Shi’ite organization for tactical collection missions, namely to gather intelligence for operational needs. At the same time, Hezbollah also makes use of them to examine the IDF’s deployment along the border and its ability to respond rapidly. Drones will definitely be employed extensively if another war erupts along the border.
Last August the Galilee Formation – the IDF’s 91st Division, which is deployed along the border – downed a drone that penetrated Israeli airspace. Unusually, the photographs taken by the device during its flight survived. In the photos – which were made available to Haaretz and appear on this page – Israeli intelligence identified the drone’s handlers. They are members of a unit that is apparently connected to the Radwan Unit, Hezbollah’s elite offensive force, named for the codename of Imad Mughniyeh, the organization’s military chief, who was assassinated in Damascus in February 2008, in an operation attributed jointly to Israel and the United States.
In recent years, after the ebbing of the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah brought back most of the Radwan Unit from Syria to Lebanon and deployed some of its personnel in villages in southern Lebanon. The names of those active in the drone unit are known to Israel. The photographs also contain an aerial view of the IDF’s deployment along sections of the border area.
Hezbollah has made great strides in the use of drones. In the past few years there have been frequent, almost weekly sightings of drones from Lebanon flying along the border with Israel and in some cases penetrating a few hundred meters southward. Drones are now an off-the-shelf product, available to everyone. They are imported legally into Lebanon for sale in stores and can also be ordered via the internet. Photographers, both professional and amateur, use them for their purposes, as do teenagers. But armies and terrorist or guerrilla organizations can easily convert them for military missions to supplement the activity performed by the larger platform, the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). The IDF, too, is introducing an extensive use of drones into its combat units, and they can be expected to occupy a larger place when the multiyear Tnufa (Momentum) program is completed.
Hezbollah, for its part, relies partly on combat doctrine and methods which the Radwan Unit learned when it fought shoulder to shoulder with Russian and Iranian instructors in the civil war in Syria. In that conflict both sides also used drones to drop explosive devices and hand grenades from the air. Similar attempts were undertaken lately by Hamas against the IDF on the Gaza Strip border. Still, the main mission is intelligence gathering. Via the drones, Hezbollah has enhanced its documentation of conditions on the Israeli side of the border and is improving the quality of its intelligence, ahead of future escalation or a war.
Maj. A., as she will be called here, is the commander of the divisional air traffic control complex, an operations room inaugurated about a year and a half ago that deals with Hezbollah drones in the Galilee. A similar operations room exists in Gaza. According to Maj. A, the widescale use of drones by Israel’s adversaries was discerned in 2014. It was then that the response to this “territory” – designated, somewhat clumsily, “near-ground altitude” – began to be developed. Together in the joint operations room are personnel from air traffic control (which is also A’s professional background), intelligence and observation units. The focus on the drones improved the ability to track them and analyze their activity, and finally also the likelihood of downing them. The intercept directives determined by the air force and the chain of command during an incident ends with the division commander, but in practice quite broad discretion rests with the interceptors themselves, as a decision needs to be made in a relatively short time.
Hezbollah rarely refers to drones in public statements, even when the IDF announces that it succeeded in downing one that penetrated Israeli airspace. The organization’s use of drones constitutes a double violation: of Israeli sovereignty when they enter Israeli airspace south of the Lebanon border; and of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which forbade the presence of Hezbollah forces south of the Litani River. In practice, Israel too has violated Lebanese sovereignty by means of intelligence gathering flights in the skies of Lebanon. According to Arab media, it also does so when the air force fires missiles from Lebanon’s airspace at military bases, production sites and arms-smuggling convoys inside Syria.