Shortly after 7 a.m. on a chilly morning at the Rosh Hanikra military base in northernmost Israel, Lieutenant Colonel Yogev Bar Sheshet was already on his third Diet Coke. He apologized for his jumpiness. “I don’t sleep much anymore,” he said. A thin man with close-cropped hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Bar Sheshet commands an infantry battalion at this heavily fortified outpost by the Lebanese border, where his troops form part of the first line of defense against Hezbollah. Until recently, his sentries could focus on the rocky hills and valleys before them, employing sensitive security cameras, motion detectors, and infrared surveillance equipment to scan for infiltrators trying to sneak past on foot. Now they watch the skies, too, on the lookout for unmanned aircraft. Last July, a shiny object flew past the base and came to a landing nearby. The officer rushed out a team to comb the area. Eventually, the searchers found their quarry: a bundle of Mylar Happy Birthday balloons. “The drones have all of us a bit on edge,” Bar Sheshet said.
There is ample reason for concern. Over the past 18 months, drones piloted by Hezbollah—but almost certainly built and supplied by its patron, Iran—have penetrated Israeli airspace, coming unnervingly close to key infrastructure sites and major population centers. Soon, they may be joined by others sent by Hamas: In October, near the West Bank city of Hebron, Palestinian security personnel arrested a team of operatives preparing to launch a drone packed with explosives. The events have set off alarms within the Israeli Defense Forces, which last April released a statement declaring unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to be a serious threat to the country.
Hezbollah’s drones represent the next evolution of warfare-by-remote-control, when weaponized robotic planes give terrorist groups de facto air forces. As Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, points out, each flight into Israel is at minimum a significant propaganda victory for the militia. “They gain more credibility anytime they compete with the mighty Israeli air force,” he says. “They love being able to say, ‘Israel is infiltrating our airspace, so we’ll infiltrate theirs, drone for drone.’ ” At the same time, Levitt adds, “If Israelis don’t feel like their government is in complete control of the airspace around the border, that’s something that could cause real panic.” But the stakes extend far beyond the psychological. Drones flown kamikaze style could easily match the casualties of a suicide bombing and be much harder to stop. Hezbollah’s unmanned aircraft could also improve its planning of future offensives by providing surveillance footage of Israeli border facilities and troop movements.
The biggest fear, however, is that drones might increase the deadliness of Hezbollah rockets. The militia fired roughly 4,000 missiles into Israel during its 2006 war with the country, killing 43 civilians and leveling several dozen buildings—tactically speaking, an abysmal accuracy rate. Hezbollah is thought to now have a stockpile of roughly 60,000 projectiles, triple the amount it had back then, and some of them are capable of reaching Tel Aviv. American and Israeli intelligence officials believe the Iranian-made missiles were disassembled, loaded onto cargo planes, flown through Iraqi airspace to Syria, then trucked into Lebanon and put back together by militia engineers. The armaments, once fully operational, give Hezbollah, Tehran’s main proxy, a powerful way of retaliating for any Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities—that is, as long as Hezbollah can consistently hit its targets, rather than rain missiles on the Mediterranean or empty fields. Drones give the group a way to see where its rockets land and calibrate further strikes for greater precision. “Right now, Hezbollah just shoots rockets into the air and hopes they hit something,” an Israeli security official told me. “The drones change the equation. They can relay back information so Hezbollah can [improve] its targeting. They can provide them with real-time intelligence and flexibility.”
Israel, for its part, boasts one of the most extensive, sophisticated, and deadly drone fleets in the world. In Gaza City, local slang has its own word for the crafts—zenanas—and residents have come to recognize them by their sonic signatures. “We all know the different sounds,” says a man whose son, a Hamas fighter, was killed by a drone strike in November 2012. “With an F-16 or an Apache, we hear two sounds—one when the missile is fired, one when it hits. With a drone, we only hear the sound of the missile.”
Israel is doing all it can to prevent its citizens from acquiring the same grim knowledge. Last December, a senior Hezbollah official named Hassan Lakkis was sitting in his SUV in a parking lot southwest of Beirut when gunmen walked up and fatally shot him in the head with a silenced 9-mm handgun. A source close to the militia told The Daily Star that Lakkis had “played a key role in developing Hezbollah’s unmanned aerial vehicles program.”
But assassinating Hezbollah agents through daring special ops is easier than keeping the militia’s drones out. Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome system, developed with significant U.S. funding, can track and then destroy incoming rockets in midair. It has also been of little use in stopping unmanned aircraft. “It’s very complicated to defend against the drones, because they’re so difficult to spot,” Bar Sheshet told me, standing near a sandbagged machine-gun nest at Rosh Hanikra. For all the cutting-edge military technology at their disposal, his soldiers have been reduced to relying on their eyes and ears.
Long before the United States ever dispatched a Predator to kill a suspected Al Qaeda member, Iran had its drone program well underway. In its case, bloodshed was the mother of invention. During the first years of Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iran lost thousands of troops. The government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered his top military commanders to reduce those numbers; unmanned aircraft were the answer they came up with. Iran’s first drone, the Mohajer, spied on Iraqi infantry positions, yielding intel that helped Iranian units avoid walking into slaughters. Tehran attempted to outfit other early drones with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, according to GlobalSecurity.org, but it would take years of experimentation to come up with a drone that could reliably threaten its hated rival.
In 2004, Iran ferried an update of the Mohajer, called the Mirsad, to Hezbollah, almost certainly via Syria. The drone appears to have caught Israeli intelligence off guard: Roughly the size of a large kite, the Mirsad—Arabic for “ambush”—took off from somewhere in Lebanon, flew into northern Israel, and hovered over the town of Nahariya for about 30 minutes before heading back from where it had come, all before Israeli forces could intercept it. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah told a rally in Beirut that the militia’s future drone missions would have less benign objectives. The Mirsad, he told the crowd, could reach “deep, deep” into Israel and “be laden with a quantity of explosives, forty to fifty kilograms, and hit any target, be it water or power plant, a military base or airport.”
The following April, Hezbollah made another drone foray into Israel and again eluded Israeli radar. During the 2006 war, it attempted an even bolder attack, deploying three small, unmanned aircraft bearing warheads packed with at least 60 pounds of explosives and pieces of metal intended to maximize carnage on the ground. One of the drones made it as far as the outskirts of Haifa, a port city with a population of nearly 300,000 people, before an Israeli F-16 took it out. The second was shot down over Kibbutz Cabri, in the Western Galilee, the third near the seaside Lebanese city of Tyre. Israeli media reported at the time that each of the crafts were Ababil models made by Iran.
“It is ... possible that the UAV was launched to send a message,” a senior Israeli military officer told The Jerusalem Post after the attack. If so, it was duly received. Then, as suddenly as they had materialized, the drones stopped coming. But not because Iran had lost interest in their potential.
One reason that Tehran has used Hezbollah to launch its drones into Israel is of course political. The outsourcing gives it a measure of deniability, which in turn constrains Israel’s ability to build a public case for retaliation. The other reason is technological. The more than 700 miles between the western border of Iran and the eastern border of Israel has been too far for Iran’s drones to traverse. Flying them out of Lebanon overcomes that obstacle. But it still leaves others to surmount.
To be truly effective at surveillance, drones need to be able to stay aloft for half a day or more. Arming them with guidable missiles or bombs—rather than crudely affixing them with explosives, as Hezbollah did to its older drones—adds hundreds of pounds of weight that reduces their flight range. A more powerful engine can compensate for that, though it just creates new aeronautics problems to solve. Much about Iran’s current drone fleet remains unknown; much of what the country has revealed about the program may be hyperbole. But the evidence suggests that Iran spent the years after its 2006 raid markedly increasing the damage its drones can do.
In the summer of 2010, then–Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ringed by an array of the country’s top military officials, stood on a stage in Tehran and watched as women in chadors pulled up a blue curtain and unveiled a gold-colored drone that he dubbed the “ambassador of death.” The new aircraft, according to Iran, could carry four cruise missiles or two large bombs, but its range remained modest, at a stated 600 miles. Last November, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan announced that engineers from the Iranian Aircraft Manufacturing Industries had produced a missile-bearing drone called the Fotros, which he said could fly more than 1,200 miles and stay aloft for 30 hours.
Soon, the capabilities of Iranian drones may exceed even those harrowing stats. In December 2011, a long-range, radar-evading U.S. RQ-170 surveillance drone took off in Afghanistan and mysteriously landed hours later at an Iranian airbase. Tehran claims that it brought down the RQ-170 after hacking into its control systems and has been diligently reverse-engineering the aircraft. If those efforts pay off, Iran could be able to build adaptations of one of the most advanced drones in the world.
That’s not to say that Israel is at risk of getting outgunned. The country spends more across the board on drones than almost any other and has become the largest exporter of unmanned aircraft in the world. (Frost & Sullivan, a U.S. consultancy, estimates that Israel sold more than $4.6 billion worth of drones and support systems to foreign governments between 2005 and 2012, nearly double the amount exported by the United States.) Its most fearsome unmanned aircraft, the Heron TP, has a range of more than 4,600 miles and a flight time of nearly 70 hours. One afternoon, the deputy commander of the drone squadron at Israel’s Palmachim airbase, Major Shai (Israeli military policy bars the disclosure of air force officers’ last names for security reasons), allowed me a peek inside one of the green trailers that houses the personnel who pilot the devices. Inside were six terminals outfitted with screens displaying drone footage and topographical maps. Major Shai told me that Israeli Special Forces officers and intelligence personnel regularly take up posts in the trailers during drone missions. He declined to say what they were there to do, though it’s not hard to guess.
The Israeli military has never confirmed that it even possesses armed drones, much less that it assassinates militants with them. But privately, security officials admit to the practice, and only the United States deploys drones for killing more frequently. For Israel, increasing the potency of its unmanned aircraft isn’t the issue. Its challenge is instead to determine how aggressively it can use its drone firepower without its tactics becoming counterproductive.
In separate interviews, two retired senior Israeli military officers expressed concern that their country may be coming down on the wrong side of that line. So many things can go wrong when sending traditional aircraft to hunt targets in Lebanon or the Gaza Strip. The plane or helicopter could get shot down. The pilot could misfire, wiping out scores of civilians. Accordingly, the Israeli government is very cautious about ordering such operations. The ex-military leaders worry that current policymakers have convinced themselves that drones can be used so surgically and with such scant downside that they may start taking out low-level militants who’d otherwise not even make the country’s kill list. “In the past, you had to carefully balance the security benefit of removing a fighter from the battlefield against the prospect of a revenge attack,” one of the former officers told me. “Drones can make it seem like you can kill someone without risks and costs. But there are always risks and costs. How many martyrs do you want to make?”
The same question gets asked in the debate over U.S. drone policy (and counterterrorism policy generally), of course. But when U.S. drones kill militants thousands of miles away from the mainland, distance prevents immediate revenge attacks on U.S. soil. The comrades of Israel’s drone targets, on the other hand, live right next door. And their side has drones, too.
When Israeli troops spot a Hezbollah drone, the protocol is for F-16s stationed at the Ramat David Air Base near Tel Aviv to scramble to intercept it. When I visited last year, my guide, Major Ori, pointed to a wall near the complex housing the fighter planes. It was emblazoned with a passage from Psalms about “Barak,” the Hebrew word for “lightning” and the Israeli air force’s pet name for the fighter jet. Invocations of speed feel apt for drone-chasing missions, where every minute counts.
A year and a half ago, Hezbollah’s drone incursions resumed as suddenly as they had stopped. On October 6, 2012, the Israeli military began tracking an unmanned aircraft as it flew south from Lebanon and out over the Mediterranean Sea. The drone banked to the east, swooped over the Gaza Strip, and crossed into Israel. Its flight path showed that the craft was headed in the direction of the Dimona nuclear facility, one of the most protected sites in the whole country.
The drone flew on, zooming over the Yatir Forest, a rolling expanse of pine trees, eucalyptus, and acacia. A pair of F-16s from Ramat David closed in. The pilot of one of the jets fixed the drone in his sights, sending it to the ground in a rain of fiery debris—but not before the device had managed to penetrate roughly 140 miles into Israel, deeper than any enemy aircraft in decades. Dimona lay just 20 miles away. The drone could have transmitted back pictures of the plant’s layout and defenses. Had it actually struck the nuclear facility, the impact would not have done enough damage to trigger a nuclear meltdown, but the incident would certainly have caused a mass freak out.
The Israeli military raced to seal the crash site. Members of Unit 669, a specially trained search-and-rescue team, scoured the trees and trellises of Yatir for wreckage from the drone. After the soldiers left, Bedouin tribesman found parts they had missed, chunks of fuselage, bits of wings. The military engineers who later studied the craft concluded that it was fairly crude. But that only underscored the challenge for Israel as it tries to prevent Hezbollah from outdoing the October 2012 mission: It’s the relative unsophistication of the militia’s drones that makes them so elusive to Israeli detection systems. “It’s physics,” Major Ori explains. “Any object that flies slower is harder to see in the radar. Any object that flies lower, or is closer to the ground, is harder to see. A normal airplane would have no chance of getting into our space. A drone does.” Soon enough, another one did: On April 25, 2013, an unmanned aircraft reached the coast near the city of Haifa, where an Israeli warplane knocked it out of the sky. Several Israeli security officials, while refusing to divulge details, told me that the country has been tweaking the Iron Dome to make it better at drone-spotting. But all evidence suggests that any such breakthrough is a long way off.
Meanwhile, progress on the home front inevitably presents new potential targets for Israel’s enemies. For instance, to provide energy to its surging population, Israel is building massively expensive natural-gas platforms in the Mediterranean. The country’s comptroller has warned that the sites lack adequate defenses against Hezbollah’s “explicit threats” to harm them. They are also, says Levitt, “precisely the types of targets drones could hit, even if they’re relatively low-tech.”
What makes drone-on-drone warfare so destabilizing is that the rules of engagement still remain to be written. Should a flight by an unarmed aircraft be considered a mere provocation? Or a breach demanding retaliation—perhaps in the form of the limited airstrikes that Israel orders after rocket attacks? What if a drone that crashes on its own before reaching its intended destination is then found to be armed? And what if Hezbollah starts trying to knock Israel’s own unmanned aircraft out of the sky? The United States faced a similar dilemma in November 2012 when Iran shot at—but didn’t hit—an unarmed Predator drone flying over international waters in the Persian Gulf. Senior Pentagon officials considered a variety of military options before deciding against responding with force, for fear of sparking a wider conflagration. Israel is in the same uncharted territory when it comes to weighing the variables that Iranian drones introduce. “In general, you don’t want to do anything that could cause an escalation unless you absolutely have to,” one of the retired Israeli air force officers told me. “But drones are so new that there’s an argument to be made that you should hit back disproportionately now and try to deter Hezbollah from using them as weapons in the future.”
It may be that we’re well past the point where deterrence is possible. Hezbollah has already developed its drone program; it already knows that it works. After the close call at Dimona two years ago, the militia publicly took credit for launching the Iranian-made craft. And more, it promised, were on their way. “Today, we are uncovering a small part of our capabilities,” Hezbollah leader Nasrallah said in a speech carried on Hezbollah’s TV station, Al Manar. “This is not the first time, and it will not be the last.”
Yochi Dreazen is the deputy editor for news at Foreign Policy and the author of the upcoming book The Invisible Front. This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.