Greetings From Hezbollah?
An Israeli fighter shot down a drone over the Negev desert this morning, but (officially) it remains unclear where the unmanned aircraft came from.
More from Reuters:
The drone was first spotted above the Mediterranean in the area of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip to the west of Israel, said military spokeswoman Avital Leibovich.
It was kept under surveillance and followed by Israeli air force jets before it was shot down above a forest in an unpopulated area near the border with the occupied West Bank.
Leibovich said it was shot down at about 10 a.m. (0700 GMT), after it travelled east some 35 miles across Israel's southern Negev desert.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak praised the interception as "sharp and effective".
"We view with great severity the attempt to compromise Israeli air space and will consider our response in due course," Barak said in a statement.
While Israeli helicopters and ground forces searched for wreckage from the drone, a former military official--who is now a member of the Knesset--left no doubt about its origins.
"...Miri Regev, a former chief spokesman of the IDF, wrote on Twitter it was an "Iranian drone launched by Hezbollah", referring to the Lebanese Shi'ite group that fought a war with Israel in 2006.
Defense officials would not confirm Hezbollah's connection to the drone.
However, the Lebanon-based terror group is the most likely culprit. Back in 2006, the IAF intercepted another drone over northern Israel that was most likely launched by Hezbollah. That drone was reportedly carrying explosives and headed for an Israeli city, perhaps Tel Aviv.
As we noted at the time, shooting down a small UAV is hardly an easy task:
"...the small size of a UAV or drone makes them difficult to acquire visually. During the days of no-fly zone enforcement over Iraq, attempts by Saddam's air force to engage U.S. Predators were usually good for a laugh on a slow day. More often that not, Iraqi radar operators could never find the target; on the rare occasions when they could, the fighter pilots under their direction failed to complete the intercept. Even at close quarters, it was extremely difficult for the Iraqi MiG driver to maintain visual track on an American UAV.
Shooting down a UAV with a fighter is equally problematic. Without radar tracking, more advanced missiles (such as the U.S. made AIM-120 AMRAAM) are largely useless. Infra-red air-to-air missiles (such as our own Sidewinder) may be a better choice, but only if you can acquire the target, l0ck onto the UAV, and maintain that lock. UAVs have a small IR signature, and that problem is compounded by "other" elements (such as clouds) that reflect IR energy, and may cause the missile to break lock. If all else fails, pilots can attempt a gun pass, but that's easier said that done, given the speed of the fighter, the much slower velocity of the UAV, intercept geometry, and the limited rounds available (a "fully loaded" F-16 has less than 600 rounds of 20 mm ammunition for its on-board cannon, enough for about 3-4 seconds of burst time. If you're going to use the gun, make the first shot count--you probably won't get another one.
Still, Israel has certain advantages in combating enemy drones. First, Hezbollah has only a limited number of UAVs, so the threat is rather for small (at least for now). Additionally, the IDF has its own, sizable drone fleet that can provide continuous coverage of southern Lebanon, Gaza and other potential launch sites. Those assets, coupled with SIGINT posts, AWACS platforms and ground-based radars, provide a "fused" picture that allows the IAF to track and intercept airborne threats.
But it only takes one drone to deliver a deadly strike, particularly if it's carrying WMD. And, it's little consolation to the IDF that the UAV flew within a few miles of Israel's nuclear complex in the Negev. Hezbollah and Iran have long had a fascination with that target, and drones offer another tool for monitoring --and attacking--the facility.
It has long been speculated that Hezbollah is more interested in UAVs for intelligence collection and not as a strike platform. However, there is little to indicate the terrorist group (and their Iranian sponsors) have developed the infrastructure necessary to fully utilize drones as an intel-gathering system. So today's flight was probably aimed at testing Israeli air defenses, and sending a signal to Jerusalem. Even if only one drone gets through, the results can be devastating.
ADDENDUM: The IDF has released video of today's intercept; watch the F-16 zoom into the frame as the drone goes down in flames. Hard to tell the type of weapon used; we're guessing an AIM-9 or a Python 5 AAM.