The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, Hezbollah dispatched to fly over southern Israel in October carried a couple of messages.
First, it was intended to remind Lebanon and Israel that Hezbollah’s main focus remains the confrontation with the Jewish state and not the conflict in Syria. The drone’s flight occurred amid increased reports of Hezbollah’s alleged assistance to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, including sending fighters to Syria to fight the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and train the regular Syrian army in urban warfare. This assistance would contradict the Lebanese government’s policy of disassociation with the war in Syria, though Hezbollah is not the only Lebanese faction operating there — several hundred Sunni Lebanese have reportedly joined the FSA and there are logistical support networks for the Syrian rebels in parts of the northern Bekaa and Akkar regions of Lebanon.
Still, amid such controversy, Hezbollah appears to have decided to switch attention away from Syria and redirect it toward Israel. It worked, at least in the sense that the drone captured headlines for a few days.
The drone’s flight over southern Israel was also a demonstration of Hezbollah’s evolving technical capabilities. It flew a drone for the first time in Israeli airspace in November 2004. That drone, an Iranian Ababil-T, was launched near Naqoura, crossed undetected into Israel and reached near Haifa during its 18-minute flight before returning to Lebanon. The Israelis never spotted it.
Hezbollah sent a second drone over Israel six months later; it also used them in the 2006 war with one drone shot down off the Israeli coast and another off the Tyre peninsula.
However, the drone that ploughed the skies above southern Israel was far more sophisticated than the Ababil-T, which lacks the range to reach the Negev desert from Lebanon — if indeed that was the origin of the UAV. Although Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, admitted that his group was responsible for the flight and Hezbollah-affiliated Al Manar broadcast graphics indicating part of the flight path, the incident remains dogged by uncertainty. Nasrallah said that the drone was launched from Lebanon but did not pinpoint the precise location. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) said it did not detect the drone, neither on its ground radars in south Lebanon nor on the shipboard radars of the Maritime Task Force, the naval component of the peacekeeping force. That suggests that the drone was small enough or flying low enough to avoid detection. Alternatively, it never flew from Lebanon in the first place.
The guidance system remains unknown as well. Drones are usually controlled by one of two means: either by an operator using radio or satellite signals to directly steer the UAV on its course or by installing a preprogrammed flight plan. The UAV, if launched from Lebanon, was operating beyond the range of radio control, suggesting it was following an autonomous preprogrammed flight plan or it was being guided by satellite signals. If the latter, that would suggest a whole new level of technological advancement for Hezbollah and Iran.
The Israelis said that they picked up the drone when it was still flying over the Mediterranean but decided to tail it until it crossed over empty terrain before shooting it down. Iran and Hezbollah claimed that the drone in fact slipped into Israeli airspace undetected, thus proving the inadequacy of Israel’s air defense systems. As usual, it is difficult to be certain which version is correct. If Israel really detected the drone over the sea and chose to follow it, that would be a first. Usually, Israel shoots down unauthorized aircraft.
It has been speculated, however, that the Israelis attempted to interfere electronically with the UAV to bring it down safely so that it could be examined. Hezbollah is believed to have done something similar a year ago when an Israeli drone mysteriously vanished over south Lebanon after UNIFIL radars saw it floating to the ground. The Israelis appear to have been not so lucky as their Hezbollah foes. When the Israeli cyber interception failed, the drone was shot down so that at least the debris could be salvaged for inspection.
The unusual incident goes to show that even though the Lebanon-Israel border has remained relatively calm for more than six years, the conflict between Hezbollah and the Jewish state continues to rage on the technological front of cyber-warfare and signals intelligence.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and The Times of London