JERUSALEM — Israeli officials said Saturday that they had carried out an attack on an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps base in southern Syria against a team that was preparing to launch “killer drones” at Israel.
Meanwhile, two drones crashed in a Shiite suburb of Beirut, a stronghold of Hezbollah. Lebanese President Michel Aoun called it a declaration of war.
In Iraq, members of the pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization Forces are scouring the skies for drones they say have targeted their warehouses. In Yemen, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have deployed drones to attack neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Political tensions and military threats are nothing new to the Middle East, but technology is giving the hostile parties a deadly new way to express them. Israel’s suspected use of high-tech military drones in three attacks in three countries in the space of 48 hours could be a taste of things to come.
Hours after the incident in Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah responded in a rare television address, “From tonight, I tell the Israeli army on the border, be prepared and wait for us.”
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are increasingly revolutionizing warfare, and recent clashes across the Middle East show how they can be both a strategic game-changer and a terrorist’s favorite equalizer.
Israel, long the strongest military power in the region, has been a leader in drone technology for decades. Companies such as Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries, Rafael, UVision and Aeronautics are pioneering new technology in drone warfare and in defending against drones.
But the ubiquity and falling costs of increasingly sophisticated and elusive drones are introducing a destabilizing factor in the tense regional calculus, neutralizing the advantage of bigger armies and arsenals and shortening the time states have to evaluate and head off a potential military attack.
Just in the past month, four bases of the Popular Mobilization Forces have mysteriously blown up in Iraq. Shiite militia leaders blamed Israel and held the Trump administration responsible for putting their country in the line of fire.
The Pentagon said the U.S. did not carry out any of the attacks. Members of Iraq’s parliament blamed “Zionist aggression” for the attacks, Al-Etejah TV reported Tuesday.
The militias in Iraq have claimed to shoot at drones from Nineveh to southern Baghdad and Anbar province in the past few days.
Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the U.N. special envoy for Iraq, told the Security Council on Wednesday that the suspected drone strikes reflect a larger fear that Iraq is being dragged into the simmering conflict between Washington and Tehran.
“We must spare no effort in avoiding this prospect,” she said in New York.
Israel in the lead
Drone technology is a natural field for Israel as part of its wide-ranging arsenal.
They can track and attack a target far beyond the country’s border without having to send precious pilots into enemy airspace. Drones are also a force multiplier for a small country with multiple borders. Israel can monitor threats from groups such as Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Israeli drones such as the Heron TP can fly more than 600 miles for 30 hours.
Israel’s defense industry also produces an array of “loitering munitions” — drones such as the SkyStriker and Harpy that pack warheads and can carry out precise long-range strikes. Israel doesn’t comment on the types of munitions it uses in airstrikes.
Drones also provide a measure of deniability, even when the apparent source of the drone is widely suspected. Although accused of using drones in Iraq and Lebanon in the past week, Israel has not commented on either incident.
“We are operating in many areas against a state that wants to annihilate us,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a nondenial denial Aug. 22. “Of course I gave the security forces a free hand and instructed them to do anything necessary to thwart Iran’s plans.”
The Israel Defense Forces later revealed that an Iranian drone team had been spotted near the Golan Heights and published grainy video of the team.
The footage underscores that Israel is not the only participant with military drone capability. Israel accused Iran of flying a drone from Syria into its airspace in February 2018. Israel’s Iron Dome missile shield, which was built with U.S. support, showed that it could shoot down drones as early as 2015.
Israeli Smart Shooter technology enables rifles to be used against small moving UAV targets. Israel’s Drone Guard and Drone Dome are other defense systems.
Hezbollah, the powerful Iran-allied Shiite movement in Lebanon, is expanding its military drone capability.
Using Iranian technology, Hezbollah has been using drones since 2004 and has repeatedly flown them into or near Israeli airspace.
Hezbollah has also used drones in Syria in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Tensions now are rising after Hezbollah accused Israel of using two armed drones in Beirut.
The Associated Press, citing a security official and the state news agency, reported Wednesday that Lebanese army gunners opened fire at two of three Israeli reconnaissance drones after they entered Lebanese airspace. The incident occurred in the village of Adeisseh, a few miles from the Israeli border, according to the AP account.
The Israeli military issued a statement acknowledging a confrontation. “The drones completed their mission and no IDF damage was reported,” it said.