Israel grapples with blowback from booming drone industry

One of the world’s largest producers of drones now a target of copycat technology.

JERUSALEM — The Iranian-built drone that flew along Israel’s coastline and then penetrated deep into the country last week, getting dangerously close to the site of Israel’s nuclear complex, has succeeded in shaking Israel’s self confidence.

One of the first steps taken by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) was to quickly deploy the US-made and Israeli-operated Patriot anti-aircraft batteries in northern Israel to boost defenses. Then another unidentified object was spotted, causing the government to take the exceptional step of closing its airspace, grounding all commercial flights and scrambling fighter jets.

Military sources insist that the breach of protected airspace by the drone was not a security failure, but it seemed to set off a red light in the country which has pretty much held a monopoly in operating drones in the region.

The concept that Israel’s enemies could actually penetrate its air space is reverberating, raising The Drone Age dilemma of how the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the post 9-11 era can actually undermine global security.

Ironically, the incident also revealed how Israel, one of the world’s leading exporters of drones, is perhaps getting a taste of its own medicine — in the parlance of the CIA, “blowback.”

“Drones take all the glory out of war.”

~Martin van Creveld, military historian

Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah was well aware of Israel’s sense of vulnerability amid the global proliferation of drones when he boasted Thursday on Al-Manar TV that experts from his organization had assembled the Iranian-produced drone and flown it to Israel.

“It wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last time,” said the leader the Shiite paramilitary and political organization in Lebanon known as “The Party of God” which is on the US list of terrorist organizations. Israeli security sources say that Hezbollah has scores of UAVs, some of which have been adapted to carry bombs.

While Israel has never admitted to operating UAVs equipped with missiles (though former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak did once let it slip on live TV) — the United States has been setting the tone with its use of the Predator to target jihadist and Al-Qaida operatives in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s a strategy some analysts feel is highly destabilizing.

“The utilization of drones in any conflict is, number one, unethical. Drones have been a destabilizing factor. In Pakistan they have been used effectively in combating Al Qaida, but the consequences have been so dramatic and negative. And the same goes for Yemen,” said Ayman Khalil, Director of the Arab Institute for Security Studies based in Amman, Jordan.

More from GlobalPost: Deadlier drones are coming

“This was a primary spark for the revolution,” Khalil added. “Because it revealed that this regime was overtaken by the diplomatic use of drones. In my opinion, it might be said that the use of drones may have negative effects including portraying the host governments of being penetrated by a foreign government.”

In recent years, UAVs have played a dominant role in Israel Air Force operations on various fronts — primarily in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip — and account for a quarter of the IAF’s overall flight hours, according to Israel Defense magazine.

But following the penetration of the Hezbollah-launched drone, Israeli military commanders are concerned that if Hezbollah has them it is a question of time before they wind up in Palestinian hands in the Gaza Strip. In fact, the flight path of last week’s drone incursion took it right over the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, perhaps in an attempt to portray it as coming from the Hamas-held coastal strip.

Alon Unger, CEO of Op-Team-UM, which offers consultancy to Israeli and foreign companies on UAVs, said, “Most countries have to consider that unmanned systems will become a threat used by terrorists.”

“The reality is that the use of unmanned vehicles is spreading and the question is how fast will it happen,” added Unger, who is chairman of upcoming conference on unmanned vehicles in Israel in November.


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