Hamas and Hezbollah’s drone warfare poses new threats to Israel’s security

UAVs employed by Israel’s Islamist adversaries in the region have been used in new and devastating ways since the war began on October 7.

A drone is launched during a military exercise in an undisclosed location in Iran, in this handout image obtained on October 4, 2023.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

In the opening attack of October 7 at around 6:30 a.m., when hundreds of rockets were fired at the Israeli rear, the military arm of Hamas activated dozens of drones that dropped small explosives on the observation towers, the “shooter’s” positions, thus blinding the observation crews.

During the attack, the drones dropped explosives on tanks and APCs near the border. This allowed dozens of terrorist squads to run from the built-up Palestinian territory to the fence to attach explosive devices and blow holes in them, through which hundreds of terrorists entered on motorcycles. There were those who ran on foot toward the outposts and settlements to murder, burn, kidnap, and rape.

“When I saw on October 7 the drones that attacked the IDF observation towers in the Gaza Division, my heart broke,” Dr. Liran Antebi, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, said in an interview with Walla this week.

“As part of my research on the issue of drones, which started in 2013, I had a fight with officials in the defense system. I hoped they would act, and when I would present it at conferences, they would tell me it was a drop in the rain of rockets. This explosion in drone activity would be the tip, and I told them, ‘It is possible to produce a precision strike capability with this. These are the new rules of the game, and this should not be treated as a drop in the rain.”

The State Comptroller’s reports in 2017 and 2021 pointed to the gaps and readiness in Israel for the drone threat that also characterized the southern front when Hamas tested the nerves of the commanders of the Gaza Division and the Southern Command.

An advanced drone system for a variety of tactical military missions. (credit: IAI and Aerotor)

Drones passed from side to side unimpeded. From time to time, the IDF took pride in shooting them down, but observers testified long before the war that quite a few of the drones returned without disturbance after a tour of Israeli territory.

It can already be assumed that they gathered intelligence on the IDF outposts and the deployment of the forces.

“I did all kinds of simulations to illustrate the threat, and I really didn’t think about attacking the observatories specifically because I didn’t appreciate that these towers were not protected in any way,” said Dr. Antebi.

She added, “Hamas conducted itself with great sophistication. During the protests on the fence, it did not use drones even though everyone knew it had them because Hamas wanted to be seen by the world as a weak side, to show that it was fighting with kites and balloons and not to be perceived as strong.”

But in practice, Hamas built a drone force of various types in all the brigades for diverse missions while the Southern Command prided itself on the ability to intercept drones, and then the war broke out.

Already at the beginning of the ground maneuver, Hamas used drones against the maneuvering forces using different methods: a pair of roving drones – one gathering intelligence and the other attacking the IDF force. In some cases, they attacked tanks and APCs and, in some cases, fighters who were sitting together resting in the field.

According to Dr. Antebi, the aerial threat changed long before the war in Ukraine and was mainly based on events in the Middle East, among them ISIS in Syria, attacks by the Houthis in Saudi Arabia, and pro-Iranian Shiite militias in Iraq against American military bases.

The main change marked by the Ukraine-Russia war was the use of small multirotor drones in the scope of a war between states. However, another system joined: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

A Hamas drone dropped an explosive charge on a surveillance camera system at the Gaza border at the start of the Gaza war

The Ukrainian army realized very quickly that there was a reality gap between the air forces. In order to reduce the gap or find the weaknesses of the Russian army, Ukraine needed to promote the use of small drones and UAVs.

Initially, the Ukrainians relied on importing units and parts from the US and other countries that see Russia as a threat. They later switched to local production.

Ukrainian local production of thousands of UAVs and drones per month has already increased to tens of thousands per month, and some claim that production lines have been established for hundreds of thousands.

They were joined by a very significant threat, racing drones (FPV) controlled by remote control with special glasses. The racing drone brings precision fire to the battlefield.

“A Ukrainian general said about operating racing drones that they are cheap, simple to operate, and even if 90% are shot down or blocked by electronic warfare – other 10% carry out the mission and hit the enemy”, Dr. Liran Antebi said.

She emphasized that some of them can reach a speed of 200 km/h and are generally intended for photographing races, but in the transition to military activity – attach an explosive to them, and they are easily adapted into self-destructing attack drones.

“The drone operators know how to use them in Ukraine, moving them through chimneys, through windows, narrow openings, against armored vehicles and cause effective explosions. When this is done in a closed space, it causes damage and death. They know how to pursue human targets. There are shocking videos of soldiers being chased by both sides. This threat is especially critical for settlements near a fence. For example, the small arms fire at an excavator can alternate with a group of drones or a single drone at a vehicle and a house. The threat is already present.”

Alongside the academic research and the warnings about the future on the Israeli home front, Dr. Antebi has in recent years delved into the threat that emerges from the combination of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems.

“In Israel, we manage our technological superiority in a disgraceful way. We have no strategy in the field of artificial intelligence nor the field of autonomous weapons systems. For example? The use of fixed-wing Iranian UAVs results from identifying weak points in our technological superiority.”

“We built a magnificent array of air defenses, but Iran knows how to see mainly the high layers, the fast, and to bypass the ability, they will create something cheap, in large volumes, to produce damage. How did we end up dealing with the last line of defense before the settlements? Admittedly, this is not only an Israeli problem but a global concern.”

The pace of Iranian-Russian production increased dramatically

This week, a record number of drone infiltration by Hezbollah was recorded on the northern border, and even in Tiberias, alarms were registered.

Hezbollah repeatedly tried to penetrate Israel’s defense layers. Hezbollah operatives are using Iranian technology, the same as the one that the Iranians also transferred to Russia as part of the war against Ukraine. UAVs and drones that operate based on image recognition.

In the past, autonomous weapons systems were a state secret and were a weapon of great powers, and today, they can be purchased on the commercial market.

For eight months now, Hezbollah has been challenging the Israeli defense systems every day and succeeding in sneaking through the defense walls with UAVs of various types and drones based on artificial intelligence.

Dr. Antebi and the former commander of the Air Force, Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin already wrote an article in February 2023 in which they claimed that an examination of the Ukrainian front where the Russian side is using Iranian military equipment, including drones, allows for a live demonstration of the threats that Israel will have to face In a future round of fighting in the north or the south.

The two also claimed that the lessons from Ukraine show that Israel must prepare to face new challenges in the field of detection, interception, and defense while in the background, the threat to social resilience and the eroding sense of security is increasing with fears of damage to electricity and water infrastructures, incidental damage and the killing of civilians.

“Israel should be troubled by the intensity and pace of production by Iran, despite the international sanctions. Drones are a step on the way to cruise missiles; hundreds of drones combined with heavy barrages of rockets can pose a challenge to the IDF,” the two wrote.

In their article, they pointed out the urgency of dealing with the threat and the need to improve the detection, targeting, and interception systems, including the thwarting of weapons transfers within the framework of The War Between the Wars (a common name for the Israel-Iran shadow war). They called for drones and UAVs to be defined as a new layer within an air defense system while preparing for the use of squadrons and swarms.

At that time, the Iranian-Russian production rate stood at 6000 units per year, but since then, it has increased dramatically, and even according to foreign reports, an effort has been made to increase Hezbollah’s weapons arsenal in the last eight months.

The use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles by terrorist organizations worries many countries in the West and the Middle East, and accordingly, study forums were held before October 7, 2023, with an emphasis on the Ukraine-Russia war.

The IDF sent a senior delegation, including the commander of the air defense formation, Brig.-Gen. Gilad Biran, a highly respected officer, proved his effectiveness on October 7 despite Hamas’s launch of a surprise attack.

Despite the high percentage of successful interceptions, a feeling spread among the public that there is no optimal answer in the northern arena for unmanned aircraft.

The public is not necessarily interested because these are small aircraft, some of which are smaller than the UAVs, such as the “Shahad 136,” which has a short exposure and is usually launched within a range of 2.5 km from the border.

Therefore, it is a challenge for all the parties involved to identify and intercept them: the control system, the air defense, combat helicopters, and fighter planes that shoot them down.

Another challenge for the Air Force is the very fact that the IDF at this stage is on the defensive, in other words, with its hands tied and not necessarily in attack mode, which gives the Air Force the opportunity to destroy ground capabilities such as weapons depots, launch sites and operators from Hezbollah’s military arm.

During the war, the IDF decided to speed up operational processes to improve the quality of defense against UAVs and accordingly approved a number of moves: connecting radars of the artillery corps, the navy, air defense, and control and equipping them with new radars and sensors to improve detection. However, there are still quite a few false alarms that harm the sense of security.

The second action is discrimination. Officials in the Air Force praised the work of control personnel and explained that it is a complex profession that requires sharpness to isolate background noise, such as flocks of birds, a spray plane that decided to spray the area without giving notice, or a tiny IDF tool to determine that it is the enemy. Sometimes, it is a period of seconds in which critical questions are required to be decided.

The third action is the availability of fire for interception. The conditions are challenging because of the proximity to settlements and bases. Air Force officials confirmed that everything happening on the northern front was part of the IDF’s threat attribution. Still, they were not prepared for such an extent at the front but in depth. Then, the various formations have a greater warning and interception time, and, accordingly, the chances of success increase.

Despite the criticism of the IDF in general and the Air Force in particular for not being prepared for threats on the southern and northern fronts, sources in the Air Force claim that even the Americans who suffer from incessant attacks by Iranian militias in Iraq have not been able to find a solution. Unlike the long border between Lebanon and Israel, they are supposed to protect bases that can be covered in an hour of running.

On the other hand, the IDF has made the Iron Dome the number one destroyer of UAVs in the IDF, and therefore, Hezbollah is making great efforts to locate the battery components to damage and destroy them.

“Still, the IDF’s high level of readiness is for accurate and heavy ballistic missiles that can disable our national infrastructure. It can happen at any given moment,” said an Air Force official.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah is eroding infrastructure on the Israeli side, damaging vital military installations, testing its own and the IDF’s military capabilities, and preparing for what is to come.

Additional sources in the IDF, who criticized Israel’s defensive policy against Hezbollah and the vigilance for the option of going on the attack, warned that Hezbollah is capable of launching a surprise attack using hundreds of drones at the same time as launching thousands of rockets a day on the Israeli home front. But then Hezbollah will drag Israel into a big, destructive, and deadly war on both sides of the border.

Even though the IDF was surprised by the attacks in the south and the north and the use of a variety of weapon systems by Hamas and Hezbollah, it seems that even now, the IDF, in general, and the Air Force, in particular, are firing in every direction to achieve different results on the ground in regards to air threats instead of pushing for one factor that will include the building of the drone force, an examination of weapons and technologies and their integration in war.

Translated by Yuval Barnea.

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