Israel grapples with blowback from booming drone industry


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.”

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.

“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.

“I think the difficult part of operating unmanned systems is behind us. They are not very complicated to operate for non-complex missions. But it is the man behind the unmanned system that will make the difference,” he said.

The Israeli air defense claims to have picked up the UAV while at sea and followed it as it entered Israel’s air space at 12,000 feet. It was photographed and monitored for 20 minutes until it flew uncomfortably close to Dimona, the site of Israel’s nuclear complex. An F-16 was ordered to shoot it down. The first anti-aircraft missile missed but a second fired a minute later hit it and it fell to the ground in a forest where the military eagerly waited to collect the pieces.

Seeking to score propaganda points, the Iranian news agency Fars reported that the commander of Israel’s Air Defense Division, Brig.-Gen. Doron Gavish, was sacked because his forces failed to detect the drone. Israeli military sources confirmed that Gavish was replaced, but that had been scheduled months ago. Furthermore, Israel’s Defense Ministry released a photo a few days later of Israel’s Minister of Defense Ehud Barak visiting an air defense base in northern Israel to praise the servicemen and women there for detecting the drone.

Israel is one of the world’s top powerhouses for developing and manufacturing a wide variety of UAVs, selling them across the globe from Latin America, to the Far East and lately Africa, its newest major market.

Experts say that the global market for drones is booming and the hottest items are the mini, micro and giant models that carry out more and more missions that were previously performed by manned aircraft.

“The UAV market is about to develop in giant steps and become the largest chunk of the aircraft sales in the world,” said Arie Egozi, an aviation expert who has covered the Israeli drone industry for over two decades.

Israel’s two major UAV manufacturers, Israel Aerospace Industry (IAI) and Elbit Systems Ltd., are well aware of the need to cooperate to win a chunk of the surging global UAV market. Today that market is valued at some $6 billion but it is expected to double in the next decade and grow to what some executives in Israel’s defense establishment estimate could reach $50 billion by 2020.

The sources say that this rapidly expanding global market for drones will require close cooperation to decrease the influence of ‘new players’ in the market, primarily from Europe and China. For the moment, the United States and Israel dominate the market and have been aggressively hawking their wares at international air shows from Dubai to Paris.

Israel is in fact stepping up its drive to widen its sales, Israeli defense industry sources say. Africa has become the latest major market for Israeli manufacturers of UAVs, they add. Specifically, African countries are seeking “first level” UAVs, for simple surveillance and intelligence without advanced payloads.

Recently, the Israeli Ministry of Defense approved the sale of the IAI’s “Heron” UAV to a number of African countries. IAI, Elbit and Aeronautics have sold UAV systems to Angola, Kenya, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Tanzania. The Israeli UAV manufacturers have pretty much got the market in the African continent to themselves and the only distant competition they face is from South Africa, Egozi said.

But Israel’s strongest clients are to the east in India, Singapore and Azerbaijan. India has established strong military ties with Israeli defense industries and has become its most lucrative market after Washington curbed Israeli military sales to China a decade ago. The Indian armed forces are currently using about 100 Searcher-II and 60 Heron UAVs, both made by IAI, but is also in the process of developing its own drones with Israel’s help.

Those UAVs are mainly used to monitor the border with Pakistan, where US-operated UAVs are in service. Pakistan has been pushing to receive the armed Predator, made by General Atomics in San Diego, as part of its military aid package from Washington. US Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy reportedly assured India last month that only unarmed drones would be sold to Pakistan. But Islamabad still remains hopeful of getting the armed Predators in the near future. Meanwhile, Pakistan has been jointly developing an armed drone with China. That would put it at an advantage over India, which currently lacks any reusable armed UAV. 

Enter Israel, again.

Israel has supplied India with a few “kamikaze” drones, called Harpy, which hover above targets such as radar installations, and then zero in for the kill, self-detonating when they hit. But India wants what is known as an Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV), preferably one with medium altitude capabilities and long endurance. Israel is helping them develop the Rustom that can fly at 9000 meters for up to 24 hours at over 1,000 kilometers and can reportedly function as a killer drone, which could be used against suspected terrorists in Kashmir.

Closer to home for Israel is Azerbaijan, which has purchased over $1.6 billion in Israeli military equipment, including five Heron drones, 5 Searchers, both made by IAI, and a dozen Hermes 450, made by Elbit. One of them was apparently shot down by Armenian forces last year over the disputed Nagorno-Karabkah enclave.

It was not the first Israeli-made UAV to be lost in the region. They were also flown and lost by the tiny Georgian military in 2008. Israel’s domestic defense industries are dependent on foreign sales in order to survive and its Defense Export & Defense Cooperation branch of the Defense Ministry is well greased to help, even if it means a conflict of interest sometimes. Elbit supplied Georgia with Hermes 450 surveillance drones and when armed conflict broke with Russia over South Ossetia in 2008, Russia managed to bring down three of them.

It gets even more complicated. According to data released by WikiLeaks, Israel provided Russia with secret data link codes for the Georgian drones in exchange for codes for the Tor-M1 missile complex Moscow sold to Iran. This would allow Russia to hack and bring down the Georgian drones and Israel to penetrate or disable Iranian anti-air missiles.

“The Russians saw how effective the (Israeli drones) were and they ended up signing deals with Israel Aerospace Industry to develop a joint UAV,” Egozi said.

IAI initially sold them the mini Bird-Eye 400 and short-range I-View Mk 150 and the longer range Searcher II. But that led to a contract worth some $400 million between IAI and Russia’s Oboronprom OPK Group in 2010 where Russia will manufacture the Heron 1, one of Israel’s most advanced UAVs. Russia’s experience with UAVs then was virtually non-existent and it marked one of the first purchases by Russia of a foreign weapon system.

At the time, Jacques Chemia, chief engineer of IAI’s UAV division, told reporters “Israel is the world’s leading exporter of drones, with more than 1,000 sold in 42 countries.”

The WikiLeaks documents further revealed that Washington objected to the Israeli cooperation with Russia on drones.

“Israel’s UAV technology is all ‘blue and white’,” said Egozi, using a phrase which means ‘made in Israel.’

“From the composite materials to the payloads. The US sees Israeli drones as serious competition, like the Heron TP against the Predator,” Egozi added.

Israel continued to penetrate the UAV market, even to potential US clients. Germany operated IAI’s Heron 1 for missions in Afghanistan. Britain’s Watchkeeper project is based on Elbit’s Hermes-450 UAV. Poland has recently announced it was replacing its aging Sukhoi-22 combat aircraft with UAVs and plans on purchasing between 125 to 200 drones. Israel is clambering over this lucrative deal. Both France and Germany were to purchase the large-scale Heron TP, but due to changes in their respective governments they are now reassessing those deals.

Furthermore Israel faces increasing competition from the US. The Washington Post recently reported that General Atomics has received approval to export to the Middle East and Latin America an unarmed, early-generation Predator drone, according to company spokeswoman Kimberly Kasitz. General Atomics is now in talks with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, among others, she said. Also, the Europeans are anxious to crack into the market. A pending merger between EADS and Britain’s BAE Systems could pave the way for them to cooperate and develop their own UAVs.

“A lot of birds are being invented, but making a good ground control center and dealing with a mission is not so easy,” said Ungar, the UAV consultant. “There is a big difference in having a capability and having an operational system. There are over 600 companies building unmanned systems in the world, but how to make an operational system working 24/7 is the tough part.”

He said that the market is changing and customers won’t be looking only at a UAVs’ range, endurance and payloads, but at how good it is at finding targets and completing the mission. It’s an area where he feels Israel has the experience and marketing edge.

The proliferation of drones is not just restricted to Western countries. China has quickly moved into the UAV market with a determined catch-up attitude. They have started to display their models in trade fairs. But Iran was the latest to announce a new type of combat drone. Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari revealed in late September that its new UAV called “Shahed 129” could fly 2,000 kilometers and launch missiles, which put Tel Aviv in its range.

“The drones were said to be used because they were more accurate and prevented collateral damage. This was the original motive for introducing them. But the enemy is learning to adjust and it doesn’t appear that they turned out to be more accurate anyway,” said Martin van Creveld, a leading military historian who writes about the future of war.

“I suggest that on Bastille Day, July 14, the French, instead of flying over Champs Elysees with fighter jets, they should use drones instead. It would be a drone parade because that’s what war’s becoming,” said Creveld.

“War has always been in part fought for glory and you don’t get glory by killing, but by risking your life. Drones take all the glory out of war. Using robots all the glory will be gone,” said Creveld, author of The Transformation of War.“ Maybe that would be a good thing?”