Drone Intrusion Over Israel a Reminder of Simmering Regional Tensions

By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA Visiting Fellow

A small, mysterious unidentified drone quietly made its way into Israeli air space last week.

Trailed by two F-16I Israeli fighter jets, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flew across southern Israel, after intruding in from the Mediterranean Sea and passing Gaza, possibly in an attempt to blend in with local Israeli drone traffic.

By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA Visiting Fellow

A small, mysterious unidentified drone quietly made its way into Israeli air space last week.

Trailed by two F-16I Israeli fighter jets, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flew across southern Israel, after intruding in from the Mediterranean Sea and passing Gaza, possibly in an attempt to blend in with local Israeli drone traffic.

The intruding drone had no explosives attached to it, but was carrying surveillance equipment.

As it crossed the northern Negev desert, flying over an uninhabited area, one of the fighter pilots received the order to shoot it down.

Seconds later, a missile fired from the fighter struck the object, and sent burning debris to the ground. Down below, IDF Engineering Corps soldiers were already waiting to collect the pieces and bring them back for analysis.

It’s not every day that a hostile drone can be found in Israeli skies. The last time it happened was in 2006, when Hezbollah sent a low-flying explosives-laden UAV toward greater Tel Aviv during the Second Lebanon War. It was intercepted by fighter jets long before it could reach its target.

The IDF has declined to disclose the point of origin for the latest intrusion, but Hezbollah has since claimed responsibility.

Israeli intelligence estimates that Hezbollah possesses dozens of Russian-made and Iranian-made drones, and that some have been fitted with explosives.

Iran too has been recently been boasting of its progress in drone production, and last month unveiled its Shahed-129 model, a machine Tehran claims can reach Israel.

Indeed, it would be a good bet to conclude that Hezbollah and Iran jointly operated the UAV, and that their goals in doing so were to test Israeli air defenses, attempt to gather intelligence, and send a belligerent message to Jerusalem.

The first two of these goals were not reached, Israeli defense chiefs have said this week. Air defenses functioned properly in spotting the drone, they said. Any decision to allow the hostile UAV into Israeli air space was likely rooted in counter-intelligence factors.

Technologically speaking, the Iranian-Hezbollah UAV capability is many years behind Israel’s drone fleets – but that fact is irrelevant to the propaganda points Tehran sought to score with the recent intrusion.

As if to confirm Iranian involvement, a senior Iranian Republic Guards Corps officer said this week that the incursion “exposed the weakness” of Israel’s air defenses. The mocking statement comes on the heels of threats by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who said that in any future war, he would bomb Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor in southern Israel, not far from where the drone intrusion occurred. Nasrallah also threatened to target Haifa’s petrochemical plants. Iran too has singled out Dimona as a target.

In light of this, the UAV should be seen for what it is: An Iranian-Hezbollah threat, designed to try and embarrass Israel and deter it from striking Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

It serves as a reminder of the simmering tensions over the Iranian nuclear program. The arms race between Israel on the one hand and Iran and Hezbollah has never been symmetrical – Israel possesses superior firepower, airpower, technology, and intelligence.

Iran and its Lebanese proxy have realized this long ago, and have opted to base their attack strategy on targeting Israel’s weak underbelly; its civilian population and sensitive civilian infrastructure.

That is why Iran has armed Hezbollah with more than 60,000 rockets, many of which can reach central Israel.

And while Israel has no intention of relying on its aerial defenses alone to counter the threat, its ability to protect the Israeli home front from rockets, missiles, and drones has never been more important, in order to shield the underbelly with a level of armor. Home front missile protection will allow the IDF to complete any required maneuver on battlefields near and far, in case of future conflict.

Amid these regional tensions, a U.S.-Israel missile defense drill will be held later this month (on October 21).

It is important to stress that the drill, named Austere Challenge 2012, the largest of its kind, was planned long in advance, and has nothing to do with specific, recent regional developments.

Nevertheless, the scenarios that will be jointly simulated by U.S. and Israeli forces will touch on very real threats to Israeli national security, as noted above.

For three weeks, American forces together with their Israeli counterparts will practice countering a variety of missile attacks. In the last phase of the drill, a Patriot missile will be fired at a mock incoming missile.

U.S. military forces will set up missile defense batteries on Israeli territory, and will seek to work in tandem with the IDF’s Air Defense Command throughout the drill.

To be sure, Israel is on a fast track to achieving a multi-layered missile defense system, thanks to American financial assistance. The protective system begins with the Iron Dome anti-rocket system, and ends with the Arrow 2 (offering missile defense in the upper atmosphere) and future Arrow 3 systems (which will intercept incoming missiles in space). A middle tier layer of protection is still under development.

Austere Challenge 2012 is in some ways a practice run for a maneuver to insert one more protective layer, through the rapid deployment of U.S. European Command missile defense positions in Israel.

Due to the scenarios in this drill, and its unprecedented scale, Austere Challenge was postponed from April to this month, due to fears it could upset what is already a very tense region, as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman stated.

But the drone incident serves as a timely reminder of the fact that regional tensions are at a constant high, and will rise further should Iran continue with its military nuclear weapons program.

If regional tensions remain high, why is the drill going ahead? The most likely answer is that Washington feels confident that Israel will not strike Iranian nuclear sites during or immediately after the exercise.

When General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in August that he did not want the U.S. to “be complicit” in an Israeli strike, he revealed a serious concern that a unilateral Israeli strike would force the United States to become involved in a conflict with Iran.

Similarly, not long after Austere challenge 12 was delayed, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta publicly warned he thought Israel may strike Iran in April, May, or June, further reinforcing the view that the postponement of the drill was caused by American fears of getting involved in an Israeli operation.

Since that time, behind-the-scenes high-level communications between American and Israeli officials occurred over the issue. Spring came and went without a strike, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN that the international community had until spring 2013 to stop Iran’s nuclear progress, and the United States has apparently become convinced that it is safe to hold the drill.

These events suggest that under the Obama administration, U.S. missile protection will only be offered to Israel if Jerusalem and Washington work together on Iran. Should Israel strike alone, it will have to rely on its own defenses.

Yaakov Lappin, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, where he covers military and national security affairs. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.