While Iran was happy to boast about downing an Israeli-made drone over its uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, central Iran, on Aug. 23, Revolutionary Guards Air Force Commander Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh played it safe two days later, when he referred to the UAV as “Israeli-made” but not directly from Israel.
As to the source of the drone, Hajizadeh said he had “some clues.”
He identified it as a Hermes 450 with an operational range of 800 kilometers, whereas the distance between Israel and Iran is 1,100 km.
But this does not rule out the possibility that the Hermes was dispatched by the Jewish state after all, say DEBKA Weekly’s military sources. Israeli intelligence agencies’ drones frequently crisscross the Mid East, Persian Gulf and north and east African airspace.
They are also employed for surveillance over smuggling routes used to shuttle arms, ammunition, experts and technical know-how to their enemies’ arsenals
Hermes 450: both surveillance and assault aircraft
The Hermes 450 boasts a range of video and still cameras that can capture extremely high-resolution color images. Thermal imaging devices allow the cameras to operate in poor visibility and almost any weather condition, including extreme heat, cold, dust and fog.
The aircraft can also pack receivers to intercept radio chatter from air defense systems, cellular, radio and other military communications. Other dedicated payloads identify the radar signatures, locations and nature of various missile and artillery systems, and can neutralize these weapons if necessary.
When outfitted with a system that scrambles air defense systems and blocks frequencies that would call for backup, the UAV is able to preempt the activation of enemy defense systems during air, ground or naval operations.
The Hermes 450 is an aggressive weapon too, and can be equipped with short-range high precision munitions precise enough to target house windows or balconies. Other UAVs include “suicide aircraft,” armed with guided explosives that penetrate openings in target buildings and detonate once inside.
With enough fuel, a Hermes launch need not be within range of target
After the Iranian announcement, various military analysts rushed to suggest that the drone couldn’t have been sent by Israel. A statement from the manufacturer of the Hermes 450, Elbit Systems subsidiary Silver Arrow, claiming the plane has a flight range of 300 km, likely misled some. Because of Israel’s wide-ranging satellite surveillance coverage, other analysts argued there was no need to risk sending a drone armed with classified intelligence systems into Iranian airspace.
But according to DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, flight range is an outdated and irrelevant standard of measure. It gauges the distance from which a handler can remotely pilot the plane, control its altitude and other functions. But with enough energy – be it electricity or fuel – a serious player in the intelligence game can activate and control aircrafts from any distance, by using air or satellite relay systems.
Each UAV has a unique electromagnetic signature. Upon completion of a mission and its successful return to base, it serves global superpower spy agencies with enough data to backtrack and reconstruct the vehicle’s flight path and its launching site.
Launching a drone from a foreign-flagged ship is easily within the realm of possibility, such as vessels in the Persian Gulf or Caspian Sea. Even neighboring territory, with or without the knowledge of local authorities, may serve as provisional launching points.
Special combat units are trained to steal into countries that are fairly friendly, but not enough to cooperate in sending foreign drones against their neighbors. These units quietly assemble the drones on the spot and see them off before fading out of the picture.
Drones largely obviate need for ground reconnaissance
Most drones are pre-programmed with a flight plan before even leaving base. Takeoff, flight, surveillance operations — including taking photographs and picking up signals intelligence (SIGINT) – and the return to destination (often different than the launch site) are all automated.
Our military experts say the Hermes-450 downed over Natanz was actually programmed to wind up its mission with scanning passes over Iran’s air defense batteries. Repeated surveillance passes are commonly carried out over targets Israel and their American and European allies consider Essential Elements of Information (EEI). They serve to map out vulnerable points in enemy defense systems.
The aircraft’s magnetic trail is closely monitored during and after the fact to discover and chart its course and identify breaches in an enemy’s defenses, which are easier for drones to penetrate, and, even more importantly, where flights face the greatest hazards.
This information is stored in the plane’s dedicated payloads. It includes details which are unobtainable by any other method, aside from ground reconnaissance units. It provides its senders with the resources for building tactical operational plans for use in real time.
Iranian defenses are smarter than previously thought
On the debit side, these spy drones run real risks of their powerful electromagnetic signatures making them vulnerable to discovery and destruction, not to mention the possibility of enemies decrypting or even hijacking their signaling codes and so tracking down the UAV’s senders. The EEI so gathered can be decoded for “draining off” the aircraft’s fuel and forcing it to land.
Nonetheless, these intelligence-gathering UAVs are a boon for the acquisition of high quality intelligence in real time for serving armies engaged in tactical field missions.
Iranian media coverage of the downing of the Hermes 450 points to the nature of its mission as being part of long-term preparation for a military operation or a preemptive strike by a superpower or a country with a special interest in the region.
Iran may have gained little information of value from the drone, but its capture illustrates that Tehran’s defense shield is smarter than previously thought, and was able to pin the Hermes down, even without it signaling home base and providing a heat signature to home in on.