Iran has discovered the attractions of its new unmanned aerial vehicles and is using them for increasingly reckless missions over strategic Middle East sites.
On April 25, a drone with no identifying marks flew south from Lebanon and was downed by Israeli Air Force jets 8 kilometers out at sea opposite Haifa.
Israel's Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon accused Hizballah: "We're talking about another attempt by Hizballah to send an unmanned drone over Israeli territory," he said.
A blackout was imposed on the Israeli Navy’s search in the sea for its wreckage. No one admitted that the UAV had reached the Haifa vicinity just as an Israeli military helicopter was nearing the port town with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his personal aides and bodyguards aboard.
When Israeli radar picked up an unidentified aerial vehicle approaching the helicopter, the prime minister’s flight was brought into land before reaching Haifa. It took off again only after the mystery drone was intercepted and brought down.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and military sources, the recovered wreckage has given up the drone’s secrets: It was identified as an Iranian Ababil-5 medium-range reconnaissance and surveillance drone, launched by a special Iranian Revolutionary Guards unit stationed in the Beirut area.
An Iranian unit is therefore on hand in Beirut and at liberty to launch an UAV from an Arab capital city at any destination it chooses.
Iran is not afraid to provoke Israel
Tehran clearly had no qualms about attacking an Israeli military flight over Israeli airspace – or even possibly about an attempt on the life of its prime minister – although it has not been established whether Iran knew who was in the helicopter – so eager are the Iranians to test the limits of their new unmanned flying vehicle.
This episode was illuminating in several ways:
1. The Iranians are not afraid of military provocations against Israel, up to and including outright belligerence, on the assumption that Israel will refrain from military reprisals either against the unit responsible for the drone incident or Iran proper. Tehran is counting on President Barack Obama’s refusal to sanction any Israeli military action against an Iranian target – to date.
2. Netanyahu is bucking the counsel of his key security advisers and IDF generals by abstaining from action against Iranian or Hizballah targets in Lebanon in order to stay disengaged from the Syrian civil conflict. (See the opening article of this issue.)
3. Tehran is so caught up in the development of its unmanned vehicles and the operational techniques, tactics and procedures –TTP – for their use that it is not averse to engaging in high-risk maneuvers to test their performance in real time and conditions.
Iranian drones now swarm over Middle East strategic and military sites
4. Iran is using technology lifted from the top-secret CIA RQ-170 Sentinel drone it captured in December 2011 – with the aid of Chinese electronic experts – to conduct regular courses for its forces and air defense teams in counter-surveillance measures and specialized counter-UAV techniques.
By reverse engineering of some of the RQ-170 design features, the Iranians are presumed to be replicating its signature reduction capabilities – particularly in electromagnetic shielding, the use of materials and the topology of elements, and lending their newer drones low “observability.”
Their Haifa operation would have given Iranian engineers valuable information about the performance of those features.
It wasn’t the first. In October 2012, the new Iranian Shahed 129 flew in from Lebanon and was able to conduct a reconnaissance mission of some 30 minutes over southern Israel before it was intercepted.
These operations teach the Iranians the limits of the Ababil’s stealth quality and help them reduce their drones’ detectability and signatures.
5. Up until the present, this was a military technological intelligence issue just between Israel and Iran.
But since April this year, it is beginning to impinge on the security of the entire Middle East and Persian Gulf.
Iranian UAVs are turning up everywhere. Tehran is now freely sending drones over southeastern Saudi oil fields and fortress cities and US army bases in Kuwait; Bahrainis report daily appearances of Iranian UAVs; they are frequent fliers over US facilities on Masirah island and the UAE; Yemen reports Iranian drones sweeping over its southern war zones and the Gulf of Aden, as well as a regular presence in the skies over US Air Force and Marine personnel bases on Socotra island.
From Lebanon, Iranian Revolutionary Guards keep large numbers of UAVs on surveillance over the battlefields of Syria.
Across the region, Iranian drones are filling the vacuum left by President Barack Obama’s decision to cut down on their use over combat areas.