Israel’s air defense caught off guard by Hezbollah’s low-tech drones

TEL AVIV — For years, the standoff on Israel’s border was between the massive rocket stockpile of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group and the vaunted Iron Dome antimissile system that ably handled most incoming.

But Hezbollah is deploying a deceptively simpler weapon out of its arsenal to bypass this cornerstone of Israel’s national security strategy: high-speed, low-flying drones — many just commercial grade — to gather intelligence and drop explosives.

As these unmanned aircraft hit military sites and private homes in Israel, they are also resurfacing debates around the decade-old air defense system, which many worry provides an imperfect shield against Israel’s many enemies — especially as they experiment with new weapons and new ways of using old ones.

With the imminent prospect of regionwide war exploding with Hezbollah and its allies, Israel is scrambling to reformulate its air defense approach to deal with these new, lower-tech threats.

Israel received a shock Tuesday when Hezbollah released drone footage showing a critical Israeli military base at the port of Haifa, some 15 miles from the Lebanese border, showing off its drone abilities. Hezbollah said the images were captured with a drone that went undetected and returned to Lebanon.


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“What we released yesterday is a small part of many hours that were filmed in Haifa,” Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said in a speech Wednesday. “There will be no place safe from our missiles and drones.”

Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, said that the footage showed a “capability that we are aware of.”

“We are preparing and building solutions for those capabilities and for other capabilities that will meet them at the necessary moment,” he said Wednesday from an Iron Dome battery in northern Israel.

Soon after the footage was made public, the Israeli army said it had “approved operational plans for an offensive in Lebanon.”

U.S. Special Envoy Amos Hochstein, after shuttling between Israel and Lebanon, said in Beirut on Tuesday that the region was “going through dangerous times and critical moments” and urged a diplomatic solution.

Israel and Hezbollah both say they do not want war, but they are readying for one. For Israel, that means rethinking old ideas on the advantages — and limits — of its own technological superiority.

Hezbollah drone tactics involving agile, radar-evading drones for reconnaissance and bombing are not new, but they have surfaced into the public conversation in recent weeks, as the tit-for-tat cross-border attacks have reached a new intensity.

Hezbollah’s small, remote-controlled drones — believed to be simply bought over the counter — can operate independent of radio signals. Some can fly up to 125 mph. They can fly low to the ground, and can maneuver around the mountains and into the canyons along the border, skimming through the blind spots in Israel’s detection web.

The Israeli military may mistake the drones for their own, or for birds. Even when it does identify them, the drones do not follow the straight path of a missile, and shooting one down, in the case of a reconnaissance drone, may cause more damage than simply letting it return to its control center.

Onn Fenig, the CEO of R2, an Israeli signal processing and machine learning start-up, said that the war between Ukraine and Russia, in which both sides are heavily relying on drones, and now increasingly Israel and Hezbollah, showcases the “modern battlefield, in which threats have evolved beyond the visible spectrum.”

In the case of the war in Ukraine, both sides use drones, but neither has found an effective defense against them, contributing to the battlefield stalemate. It is not clear how Israel plans to crack the drone conundrum.

“The Hezbollah modus operandi is first sending out very small commercial drones to do surveillance of IDF military posts, trying to figure out which units are there, then a few seconds later, a kamikaze UAV explodes,” Fenig said, using the abbreviation for unmanned aerial vehicles.

“The damage is normally not that big — it’s not a missile. But it’s psychological — they are showing that they can penetrate the air defense, they can reach very far behind your border lines,” he said, speaking from the international arms expo in Paris.

The drone footage from the Haifa port on Tuesday was probably only the latest in a string of similar cases, Fenig said, made public only because “people actually saw it in the sky,” and because Hezbollah publicized it as a piece of psychological warfare.

The simplicity of drones is the reason that, for more than a decade, they were seen as a low priority for an Israeli army that prided itself on its high tech, said Liran Entebbe, a researcher of the link between technology and defense at the Institute for National Security Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Tel Aviv.

Israel is now part of an arms race where, for a change, organizations that once seemed small or poorly funded can be surprisingly effective, she said. “Many times, Israel’s enemies challenge it with low-tech, or no-tech, and so Israel must not necessarily respond only with technology, but with a real awareness of the threat.”

During the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack, thousands of gunmen stormed Israel’s border with the help of explosive-laden drones that took out the surveillance cameras, sensors and automatic machine guns along Israel’s southern border fence — a fence thought to be impenetrable.

More than 1,200 Israelis were killed in that attack and more than 250 taken hostage. In the ensuing eight months, more than 37,000 Gazans have been killed during Israel’s retaliatory air and ground assault, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians but says the majority of the casualties are women and children.

A war with Lebanon could be even deadlier for both Israel and Lebanon, given the number and types of weapons involved, experts say.

Last week, after Israel killed the most senior Hezbollah commander yet, the group fired its largest salvo of rockets and drones at Israel since October, sparking wildfires that have scorched 11,000 acres of land. On Saturday, Hezbollah shot antitank missiles at the IDF’s main air traffic control base on Mount Meron. Two days later, Israel killed a “key operative” in a Hezbollah rockets and missiles unit. The cross-border attacks are incessant.

The biggest test for Israel’s air defense, however, came after Iran retaliated for the bombing in April of its embassy in Damascus and the killing two senior Revolutionary Guard commanders. Iran, together with Hezbollah and regional allies, fired hundreds of cruise and ballistic missiles and launched hundreds of explosive drones at Israel.

Israel emerged largely unscathed, with just one young girl severely injured by shrapnel. But it had help. The U.S.-led regional coalition provided major support in shooting down many of the incoming projectile.

The Iranian attack was also a one-off event, and raised questions around Israel’s ability to handle, or afford, an attack that would have been more sustained, said Fenig, the Israeli start-up CEO. He said Israel and its allies in the post-Oct. 7 world would need to leverage its military technology to deal with a new generation of unconventional, at times paradoxical threats.

“If you’re strong and you have budget, you don’t have the upper hand,” he said. “There’s no one solution in this dramatically changing battlefield. It’s all very problematic.”

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