The Drone Threat in Israel: An Upcoming Ban?

The potential danger posed by drones as a mean of asymmetric warfare and a tool in the hands of terrorist organizations might lead Israel to impose a ban on their use in its territory. Opinion

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The violent protest in the Gaza Strip that took place last May attracted much media attention. Most reports focused on the political reasons that caused them (namely the decision by the Trump administration to move the US embassy in Jerusalem), but others raised the issues of the new means and tactics employed by both the protesters and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF); notably the Molotov-carrying kites used by the former and the drones dropping tear gas grenades deployed by the military. As the Israeli army exploits its technological edge to its advantage, the Palestinians will try to develop asymmetric methods to counter its conventional superiority; in the natural course of creative adaptation that is so recurrent in the history of armed conflict.

One of the most likely ways the Palestinians and other groups can implement in their struggle against the Jewish State is starting to use drones themselves, and especially flying ones, also called UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). Due to their availability on the civilian market, Palestinian protesters and anti-Israel groups like Hamas and Hezbollah can easily adopt drones to perform a variety of tasks; if necessary after applying some relatively simple modifications. This has not happened yet, but it is only a matter of time before it does. For this reason, Israel will likely put a ban on the sale and the possession of flying drones in all of its territory, notably in the most sensitive areas. As a matter of fact, it has already introduced restrictions which can be regarded as the prelude of a broader preventive ban that could be enforced before the threat materializes.

The Drone Threat

Since their introduction, UAVs have sparked an intense debate among security analysts. Apart from their deployment by regular military forces, serious concern started arising as drones became more widespread and cheap that they could be used for malicious purposes by irregular groups such as insurgents and terrorist organizations. Today, they can easily be bought in most shopping centers and on the internet, and therefore there is a realistic possibility that they will soon be used as a mean of asymmetric warfare or as a tool for terrorist attacks (in fact, the former has already happened).

What makes UAVs ideal for groups willing to conduct such operations is that they are relatively cheap and easy to use, and there are many ways insurgents and terrorists could employ drones to their advantage.

The first, and most obvious, is to perform ISR activities (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance). A flying drone with a camera can be used to monitor the position and the movements of security forces both when planning and when conducting an attack. This allows to locate eventual gaps in the security perimeter and to coordinate the action of assailants, thus resulting in a potentially critical advantage to maximize the attack's effectiveness.

Another way is to use drones as weapons themselves: it is enough to adapt it to carry an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) to transform it in a small yet dangerous flying bomb. This had already happened in 2006 when Hezbollah used an explosive drone to attack an Israeli warship, and in 2016, when the forces of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq used flying IEDs to attack Kurdish troops. But the most recent and spectacular example is with no doubt the alleged drone attack against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on August 5. Terrorists could do the same against civilians with ease. For instance, it would be enough to fly one above a crowd in a concert and make it explode to cause several casualties and spread panic. Similarly, an IED can be used to attack vulnerable infrastructures such as electric or telecommunications grids, as even limited damage can be enough to disable them.

A third way is to use drones against other drones, so to neutralize the UAVs employed by security forces. The most rudimentary method for armed groups (and to a lesser degree terrorists) to do so is to fly drones next to the ones used by the military and law enforcement units. The need to avoid a midair collision would be enough to disturb their operations, and if it actually happened this would bring down the “good” UAVs. The effectiveness of this technique can be enhanced by attaching a web to “catch” other drones. A more advanced (but technically more difficult) method could be to use drones to carry jamming equipment capable of disrupting the ones used by security forces.

Moreover, while a single drone can be dangerous, their potential as an attack vector becomes even greater when were employed in great numbers, especially if they are numerous enough to form a swarm. Defense analysts have raised the alarm over this particular way of employing small UAVs. In short, the tactic consists in using a great number of drones to attack a single target. This allows to saturate its defenses and ensure its destruction. This method has recently been implemented for the first time: in January 2018 a swarm of drones attacked a Russian military base in Syria. Even though it is inherently more complex to perform than single-drone attack, as it requires coordination for being successful, it is likely that insurgents and terrorists will apply this tactic more and more frequently in the future.

This rapid overview already shows the potential danger posed by drones as a mean of asymmetric warfare and terrorism. But while this is a universal threat valid everywhere; Israel is particularly sensitive to this type of menace.

Drones as a Threat to Israel's National Security

Analysts have already pointed out that Israel is especially concerned by the threat of drones used by armed groups and terrorists. The reason why the Jewish State is more sensible than other countries to this specific eventuality is linked with its rather unique security situation.

Israel is practically surrounded by menaces, notably coming from Islamist armed groups. To the north, there is Lebanon, home of the powerful Hezbollah militias supported by Israel's arch-enemy Iran. Syria is another problem: since it plunged into civil war, instability reigns in the country and armed factions have proliferated, thus worsening the security situation for the Jewish State. The situation is similar to the south: the Gaza Strip is the stronghold of Hamas and its paramilitary branch, the Al-Qassam Brigades; and beyond it lies the Sinai Peninsula and the extremist groups based there. More in general, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far from being resolved, and Israel occupies many disputed areas that Palestinians claim to be part of their legitimate State.

Consequently, violent protests and terrorist attacks can occur at any moment anywhere in the country, notably in the occupied territories and the controversial Jewish colonies. Also, transnational terrorist networks such as ISIS may also perform attacks on Israeli territory. All such groups could employ UAVs, and as a matter of fact both Hamas and Hezbollah have already built their drone arsenals; with the latter having already used them against the Israeli military in 2006.

Another element to consider is the demographic distribution. Israel's population is concentrated in high-density urban areas (92.4% of the total in 2018). In such an urbanized context, the potential targets for terrorist groups are multiple, and protecting all of them is a difficult endeavor. Additionally, this environment is a tricky one even for well-trained troops like the IDF in case of ground actions akin to Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 and Protective Edge in 2014; and the use of drones by adversaries could further complicate such a scenario.

Finally, there is also a cultural aspect to consider. As Dr. Michael Brecher argues, Israel's national mindset is marked by what he defines as the “Masada complex,” a term indicating the country's peculiar “psychological” feeling of being constantly under siege. This brings it to act firmly to ensure its security and is a factor that further contributes in driving towards a preventive ban on UAVs.

As such, its highly urbanized nature and the existence of multiple threats and hotspots make Israel particularly exposed to the menace of drones, both as ISR means and as attack vectors. Armed groups can easily obtain them (also thanks to the support of foreign powers, most notably Iran) and use them as an asymmetric mean to hit targets in Israel and counter the conventional and technological superiority of the IDF in case of Close Quarters Combat (CQC) engagements. For a state so concerned over its security, imposing a ban on drones is an option to be seriously considered; and this is likely to result in a full ban.

The Rationale and the Challenges of Implementing the Ban

As seen, drones represent a realistic threat to Israel, thus providing it with a valid reason to implement a ban on their use. Still, this may seem an excessive measure to handle the issue, and introducing a restrictive yet partial regulation may appear a more logical choice. However, when examining the problem more carefully, it is clear that a complete ban is a more viable solution to ensure security.

The fact is that implementing a partial ban requires to discriminate between legal and rogue drones. In other words, how can you distinguish between a drone piloted by an amateur from one controlled by a member of an armed group? How to tell that it is not performing any dangerous activity and be sure that it is not gathering intelligence or preparing to dive on a target like a flying IED? That is practically impossible. A theoretical solution would be to install a transponder-like device in drones so that each of them has its own unique and permanent “digital signature,” which is to be registered in a database. All legal UAVs would be allowed to fly, while those without a (registered) signature would be immediately shot down. But in practice, this would only transform the problem rather than solving it. The “digital signature” could be faked, stolen or copied from a legally registered drone; or the legal drone itself could be stolen and then used for malicious purposes.

As such, the best way to ensure that drones do not pose a threat to Israel is to ban them fully. In this case, the problem of implementation would be much simpler. Any UAV would be automatically destroyed upon detection (except those belonging to the Israeli security forces, of course); and this would apply to both drones taking off from Israel itself as well as (and even more) to those coming from areas not under its jurisdiction. This can be done in various ways, the simplest and most effective being deploying an automatic air defense system capable of detecting and destroying drones autonomously. In practice, it would be a defensive grid akin to the Iron Dome system that Israel uses to shoot down incoming rockets.

Another way would be to use a network of jamming systems that would force UAVs to either withdraw, land or crash; but this would require to know the frequency used to control the drone and would also leave the door open for anti-jamming techniques to neutralize the defensive system. So, at the end of the day, the physical destruction is a safer and easier solution; but a mixed defense grid is not to be excluded.

Implementing a similar anti-drone system would, of course, bring costs and technical challenges; notably that of deploying it in densely-populated urban areas where obstacles like buildings would make detection and targeting difficult, without forgetting the risk of collateral damage. But Israel has the technological know-how and the financial means to develop it, and its security concerns are realistic enough to justify its deployment.

And as a matter of fact, Israel has already taken measures in this sense, since it has recently banned drones with cameras in the West Bank. This is likely the first step on a path that will likely lead to a full ban on drones on all the Israeli territory.

The Future Prospects: A Nation-Wide No-Fly-Zone for Drones

On the basis of the previous considerations, a ban on drones is to be expected quite soon in Israel. It is possible it will be introduced preventively before the threat further evolves; but if not, it will almost surely follow once the security menace materializes for the first time.

What remains to be seen is the qualitative and geographic extent of the ban.

Regarding the former dimension, it is reasonable that any kind of drones will be made illegal, except maybe the smallest one with no cameras. All other types can pose a threat, as means for ISR activities (if they are equipped with image acquisition devices), as flying IEDs and possibly as jammers.

For what concerns the latter aspect, the ban will surely be extended over sensitive areas such as the Gaza Strip, the border with Lebanon, the Golan Heights or the West Bank; and of course over military bases, government buildings and strategic infrastructures like nuclear plants. But given the high number of potential targets for terrorist all over Israel, it is very likely the ban will be extended to all major cities and finally applied over the entire country. In practice, however, it will be enforced around the main urban centers and other sensitive areas around which the automated anti-drone system will be deployed. Desert zones will remain uncovered in practice, but the problem is not relevant since there are no stable and suitable targets to attack there. Also, given Israel's high urbanization, effectively protecting the cities will grant the safety of virtually all of its population.

As such, given the real entity of the threat and Israel's specific security concerns, it is likely that the selling and the ownership of all types of drones will ultimately be prohibited over the whole of its territory. The only thing that remains to be seen is when exactly this will happen.

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Alessandro Gagaridis holds a Master’s degree in Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution and is a regular contributor to Geopolitical Monitor. He also examines issues related to international affairs on his personal website www.strategikos.it