Riding the Thermals: Inside Hizballah’s Drone–Mostly Hot Air

Alarms over Hizballah's primitive drone were a publicity coup for Lebanon's Shi'ite militia. But the PR stunt may have given away any potential element of surprise in the event of another war with Israel.

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Wissam Nassar / Corbis

A Palestinian man listens to Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV where Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah claimed responsibility for sending a drone over Israel, Oct. 11, 2012.

What’s in a drone? In the case of the unmanned aircraft that Hizballah sent over Israel earlier this month,  the answer is: Pretty much just the headlines.  The aircraft produced a great many photographs, but they were all of its own wreckage, scattered across the wastes of the Negev Desert after an Israeli fighter sent a missile into its fuselage.  The camera on board the drone went down with it the morning of Oct. 6, along with any images taken during its brief foray over Israeli territory, according to Asaf Agmon, head of Fisher Brothers Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, an Israeli think tank.  Despite the bold posturing of Hizballah, which sent the drone, and Iran, which manufactured it, the aircraft had no ability to transmit images back to its base.  It was, in effect, a passenger pigeon, slow, vulnerable and with a net military effect of almost nil.

“This is the technology of the late ‘80s,” Agmon, a retired brigadier general in the Israeli air force, tells TIME.  “It’s a nuisance, but it forces us to deal with it.”

In the publicity realm, however, the aircraft caused a sensation. Launched from Lebanon, it cruised across the southeast corner of the Mediterranean and entered Israeli air space between the coastal cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon – not by way of the Gaza Strip, as originally reported, an Israeli security source tells TIME.   Israeli radar – which reaches as far as 300 miles – tracked it electronically, and pilots in scrambled fighters followed it visually.

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It was not moving fast.  Driven by a propeller, the drone’s top speed was that of a small car, perhaps 100 mph. It could climb no higher than 10,000 feet.  When it passed beyond populated areas, and there was no risk of damage from falling debris, the order was given to shoot it down.  The first missile missed.  The explosion of the second, released as a gunsight video,  blew it into so many pieces that Bedouin shepherds stumbled across some of them even after Israeli soldiers had supposedly swept the area clean. What they had found was less than alarming.  The vehicle had been guided by GPS, programmed at its base to follow coordinates downloaded from a satellites, like a cell phone.  It had no capacity to show its commanders what it was seeing under it, because it lacked the ability to upload to a satellite transponder; nor could it change its course once under way.  The resolution of the camera it carried may have been scarcely better than Google Earth, says Agmon, the retired brigadier.

“The technology they’re using is something like 20-years-plus behind the state of Israel,” Agmon says.  “It’s going to take [Iran] a lot of time to reach the level of the West.  Although we must not forget they were the ninth country to send a satellite into space. It was primitive, but still….”

But still, this is a realm where Israel should be happy to engage an enemy, drones being something of the country’s specialty. The Jewish state produced the first military unmanned craft during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, using them not as surveillance or missile platforms but as decoys for Syrian anti-aircraft guns that had been punishing Israeli pilots.   In the years that followed, Israel Aerospace Industries showed the Pentagon the way into a new dimension of military aviation – playing big brother to the superpower that, as a matter of legislation and executive policy, is committed to assure Israel a “qualitative military edge” over its neighbors.  As of 2010, the Israel Defense Forces order of battle lists a baker’s dozen of unmanned aerial vehicles, ranging from the massive Heron – which with the wingspan of a 737 and the carrying capacity to remain aloft for a day at a time, jamming computers on the ground, would play an important role in any attack on Iran’s nuclear sites – to battlefield drones small enough to fit in a soldier’s backpack. Engineers are testing new models so tiny they can pass for insects, including a butterfly drone meant to operate inside buildings. Never mind the mosquitos.

There’s a rich and amusing history of paranoid foreign states declaring they have detected evidence of Israel’s technological prowess in the animal kingdom:  Saudi Arabia saw a banded Griffon vulture  as a spy, Turkey a European bee-eater. When a shark attacked a tourist in the Red Sea, Egyptians blamed Mossad. And Iran five years ago reported that 14 squirrels had been detained near its border on suspicion of espionage. Yet Hizballah was justified in impounding rocks – fake ones, outfitted with cameras and tucked amid the rubble of a hillside north of the Blue Line.

But Israel’s mythic reputation for innovation and astonishing reach cuts both ways. So formidable is the image of Fortress Israel that that the slightest breach can be made out as a triumph – and, for Hizballah, a way of changing the subject from the group’s unflagging support for a Syrian government slaughtering its own people. The PR success managed to overshadow the military price of the same episode. By sending the drone up as a diversion, Hizballah revealed a heretofore hidden capacity to the Israelis, sacrificing the element of surprise that would have mattered more in the controlled chaos of a shooting war. “With every new encounter, we see a new advance on their side,” Agmon notes. “Revealing it was a weak move.”

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The Shi’ite militia, created by and armed by Iran, represents a genuine ongoing threat to Israel. Its 40,000 missiles are no nuisance; the arsenal would overwhelm Israel’s anti-missile systems, and likely produce casualties in the thousands.  But the question of  air superiority was decided decades ago. The day after the drone was shot down, Israeli pilots roared through Lebanese skies for an hour.  The Beirut government asked the United Nations to take note of the violation of its air space, Lebanon’s foreign minister complaining that the Israelis have done it “tens of thousands of times.” Exactly:  And so the news remained the drone.  “Great job by Hizballah,” chirped Iran’s defense minister.  “We can reach any place we want,” crowed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah’s leader, speaking from an undisclosed location.  He lives mostly underground, for fear of an Israeli air strike.

— Aaron J. Klein contributed reporting from Tel Aviv