How big of a threat are drones to Israel’s security?

A Rafael Python 3 air-to-air missile under the wing of an Israeli F-15D Baz. (Graphic by KGyST, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).

A Rafael Python 3 air-to-air missile under the wing of an Israeli F-15D Baz. (Graphic by KGyST, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).

In mid-July, an unmanned Russian drone accidentally infiltrated Israeli-controlled airspace on the Golan Heights from Syria and evaded three Israeli attempts to shoot it down. Initially believed to be deployed by the Shiite militia Hezbollah, this lone drone evaded two Patriot surface-to-air missiles and one air-to-air missile fired by an Israeli jet fighter before escaping back over the border.

The incident again raises the question about how vulnerable Israel is to such asymmetrical threats and if the Israel Defense Forces are readily prepared to combat relatively cheap, simple yet effective tools its enemies can deploy against it in a future war.

This isn’t the first time an unmanned drone has violated Israeli air space and raised questions about just how secure Israel’s airspace is. Back in October 2012 Hezbollah flew a drone near Dimona, home to Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons program. The drone was operating around that area for a whole three hours before being shot down by the Israeli Air Force.

Such small unmanned drones are harder to detect and harder to shoot down than manned fixed wing aircraft. In fact it was the Israelis who initially used drones as effective reconnaissance aircraft against the Syrians in Lebanon back in 1982. Sending small nimble drones over the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, where Syria had deployed a vast array of Soviet-made surface-to-air (SAM) missiles. Israel successfully used some drones as decoys which simulated attack aircraft, leading the Syrians to activate their tracking radars, enabling Israel to then accurately fire anti-radiation missiles at those SAM batteries. A series of devastating Israeli air-strikes effectively took out those batteries and enabled Israel to attain air superiority over Lebanon.

While none of Israel’s current rivals and adversaries have the capability to do such a thing against Israel they nevertheless have the potential to undercut Israel’s military and technological superiority over them and make any war Israel has with them much more expensive for the Jewish state.

The July incident saw Israel shoot two Patriot missiles, a single one of which costs approximately $2 million, and another air-to-air missile which likely cost, at least, tens-of-thousands. During the last two Israeli operations in Gaza (November 2012 and summer 2014 respectively), Israeli Iron Dome missile defense systems were shown intercepting homemade Hamas rockets over South Israel. A single Tamir missile fired from the Iron Dome cost at least $50,000. While a simple Hamas rockets costs approximately $500-1,000 a piece. Furthermore two Tamir missiles have often been fired to intercept a single Hamas rocket.

In a future war could we possibly see Israeli defenses confused or overwhelmed by relatively cheap air bourne weapons deployed by either Hamas or Hezbollah? Firing barrages of expensive SAMs to defend Israel against small drones of questionable effectiveness (the Israelis may reason that it is better to be safe than sorry when unidentified drones violate their airspace, especially when they approach urban areas) could be extremely costly to Israel and could see them expending expensive munitions very quickly.

July 2016 also marked the tenth anniversary of the July 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon, known in Israel as the Second Lebanon War. A rematch could be much more dangerous than the last war, especially since Hezbollah has much more firepower than in the last war and has reportedly garnered sufficient combat experience in its three-year-old operation in Syria.

Also in the last war after 34 days of fighting with Hezbollah Israel’s stockpiles of bombs and munitions, vast quantities of which are required to sustain an offensive campaign against an opponent in that opponents territory, reached levels considered to be dangerously low by the Israeli military. It took a few years for them to be replenished.

Security forces examine debris from Patriot Missiles fired at an unidentified drone that entered Israeli airspace from Syria, July 17, 2016.

Security forces examine debris from Patriot Missiles fired at an unidentified drone that entered Israeli airspace from Syria, July 17, 2016.

More generally modern wars see munitions, especially hi-tech ones, dispensed very quickly. That was true in the Yom Kippur War, when both Israel and its Arab adversaries had to get their respective American and Soviet clients to keep their stocks replenished, and in the 1991 as well as 2003 American war in Iraq. Even the current US air campaign against Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Iraq and Syria has seen the US government sign a recent contract with Boeing to produce more smart bombs to replenish their diminishing stockpiles.

An enemy using elusive techniques, like simple drones of the kind that dodged three missiles last month, against Israel and dragging that country into a protracted conflict they cannot win decisively could have the potential to weaken Israel, damage morale and faith in the military’s ability to rapidly neutralise any threats to Israel’s security. A cost which many of its enemies may be willing to lose a major battle for on the gambit that it might help them win the war in the long-term.

This entry was posted in Drones, English, International, Israel.

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