With Israel’s Destruction of Drone, the Region’s Dynamics Have Changed Significantly

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 7 2012 3:10 PM

With Israel’s Destruction of Drone, the Region’s Dynamics Have Changed Significantly

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An Israeli army helicopter searches for the remains of an unarmed and unidentified drone

Photo by DAVID BUIMOVITCH/AFP/GettyImages

The widely reported downing of an unmanned aerial vehicle that entered Israeli airspace on Oct. 6 demonstrates, in stark terms, how UAVs have the potential to upend long-held assumptions regarding the nature of Iran’s reach in the Middle East. For Israel, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The UAV (industry experts dislike the term drone) arrived in Israeli airspace from over the Mediterranean, flying west to east in a trajectory that brought it “over settlements and military bases in the Negev” before it was shot down south of Hebron. In a video released by the Israeli Defense Forces, a missile fired from a fighter jet can be seen striking the interloper. Israeli officials believe the UAV may have been on a mission to perform surveillance of the Dimona nuclear plant.

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The video shows that the UAV was flying at a sufficiently high altitude to allow use of an air-to-air missile. In addition, a size comparison with the missile in the video frames just before impact indicates that the UAV was fairly small, making Israel’s success at destroying it noteworthy.

The most fundamental questions, however, aren’t answered by the video: Where did it come from, and who launched it? If, as some are suggesting, it was made in Iran and launched from Lebanon by Hezbollah, that implies a range of at least several hundred miles.

As military-grade long-range UAVs go, distances of hundreds of miles are small potatoes. The Global Hawk used by the U.S. military for surveillance can travel 10,000 miles. Just last month, Iran claimed that its newly unveiled Shahed-129 UAV has a range of 1,250 miles, significantly more than the distance from Tehran to Tel Aviv.* However, Iranian government assertions regarding its military technology are often greeted with skepticism, and the regime’s credibility certainly wasn’t enhanced by the 2008 release of an apparently doctored photograph of a missile test.

By contrast, the Oct. 6 incident irrefutably shows that someone in the region has the ability to procure or develop a UAV and use it to penetrate deep into Israel’s airspace. The shoot-down demonstrates the Israeli military’s ability to detect, track, and successfully down a foreign UAV operating without authorization over its territory. But why was the UAV downed only after it had flown over settlements instead of being stopped at the shoreline? Would it even have been detected if it had been flying at extremely low altitudes or if it were smaller? Have there been previous incursions that went unnoticed?

Israel has long been concerned about the threat posed by Iranian ballistic missiles. But Israel’s Arrow anti-ballistic missiles, developed under a multibillion-dollar program funded in significant part by the United States, would do nothing at all to stop a UAV coming in low over the waters of the Mediterranean. The Iron Dome system, which is designed to intercept short-range rockets following a predictable trajectory, would do little better. Instead, it was an F-16 that was called in to dispatch the UAV over the Negev, and in the video the matchup isn’t even close. The UAV plods along, cannon fodder for the F-16 that appears briefly in the upper left corner at the end of the clip.

In the long run, however, manned fighter jets will be a very poor choice for defending against hostile UAV incursions. UAVs will eventually gain the advantage in agility and maneuverability—and in the ability to dodge and weave to avoid missiles intended to destroy them. Given that the entire country of Israel may now be within easy reach of Iranian UAVs launched from southern Lebanon, that’s a technology trend that has the potential to fundamentally alter the dynamics of the region.

More generally, this event underscores the globalization of UAV technology. Like manned airplanes, UAVs provide a long list of extremely beneficial civilian applications. And, like manned airplanes, UAVs have military uses as well, including enabling surveillance of another country’s sensitive facilities. The Israeli military has used UAV imagery for decades, including in the 1982 Lebanon War. Israel now finds itself looking at the cameras from the other side of the lens.

Correction, Oct. 7, 2012: This blog post originally said that 1,250 miles was significantly less than the distance from Tehran to Tel Aviv. That is significantly more than the distance between the two cities.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

John Villasenor is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of electrical engineering and public policy at UCLA. Follow him on Twitter.