Two stories regarding Israel and drones appeared last week, illustrating both the dangerous new world of drone proliferation and Israel’s major role in making that possible.
Early last week, a mysterious object that entered Israeli airspace turned out to be a drone launched by the Lebanese Shi‘i militant organization Hizballah. Its leader Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah warned would that it would not be the last “quality” operation of its kind. The unarmed reconnaissance drone was believed to have been launched near the southern Lebanese city of Sidon and flown over the Mediterranean near Gaza. It was shot down about 35 miles inland to the north of Israel’s Negev desert, marking a rare breach of Israel’s tightly guarded airspace.
Also last week, a report on CNN declared Israel the world’s largest exporter of drones, noting that the state-owned Israeli Aerospace Industries sells unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and related technologies to dozens of countries as varied as Nigeria, Russia and Mexico. The report notes that Israel’s booming drone industry is just a symptom of a broader global trend: Only ten years ago the US had a virtual monopoly on drones, but now more than 70 countries own some type of unmanned aircraft, although just a small number of those possess armed drones.
The timing of these two stories may have been coincidental, but the relationship between Israel’s fervent use and export of drones and their eventual deployment by Israel’s arch-enemy Hizballah is not.
As one of the first states to develop and use drones in war, Israel pioneered their use as tools of surveillance and assassination in the new “asymmetrical” conflicts between states and insurgent organizations in Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, making it a particularly attractive “battle-tested” supplier for states seeking new tools to control their populations. Israel’s booming trade in such techniques and technologies is a major part of what Jimmy Johnson has referred to as the “Global Pacification Industry,” the growing industry serving a market of inequality management around the world.
Thus, it should be no surprise that Israel’s opponents, including insurgent and militant groups, are seeking to counter them in this new arena of warfare. War is a largely reciprocal and imitative human endeavor. The British military theorist Gen. John Fuller wrote of the “constant tactical factor” describing the interplay: Every technological innovation is eventually countered, which in turn spawns demand for another technological innovation. In fact, Hizballah has attempted to send unmanned aircraft over Israel on several occasions, dating back to 2004. The last known such attempt took place during the 2006 war, when Israel shot down at least three Iranian-made pilotless aircraft that had entered its airspace, each carrying a payload of explosives, marking the first drone attack against a state by a non-state drone.
Moreover, it is increasingly the case that technologically sophisticated non-state organizations are able to utilize many of the same technologies that stronger powers like Israel have developed and exported, which security analyst John Robb has called the rise of “open-source warfare.” While it certainly was the case that the drone Hizballah sent up over Israel was a crude facsimile of its Israeli counterparts, dismissed as “rinky-dink” by one analyst, its use indicates that the drone genie is out of the bottle, and will likely spur new and further innovations.
As CNN’s Peter Bergen suggests, the explosion in drone technology promises to change the way nations conduct war and threatens to begin a new arms race as governments scramble to counterbalance their adversaries. But states are not alone in their quest for drones. Insurgent groups, too, are moving to acquire this technology. Last year, Libyan opposition forces trying to overthrow the dictator Muammar Qaddafi bought a sophisticated surveillance drone. As drone technology becomes more widely accessible, it is only a matter of time before others acquire them.
The broader message of Hizballah’s drone should be clear: The drones launched by Hizballah, one of most innovative militant groups at war today, marks the coming end of the monopoly by states over drone technologies, walking right through the door that Israel and other states have opened into the dangerous new world of robotic warfare.
But Hizballah’s drone also reveals something else about the new world of warfare. Both Israel and the US frequently unveil new instruments of warfare in displays of “technological exhibitionism” meant to warn and deter opponents. Hizballah appears to have adopted the same practice. Indeed, Hizballah’s open acknowledgement of Iran’s role in producing the drone, which was then assembled by Hizballah in Lebanon, and its actual flight path over southern Israel suggests its deployment was as much a marketing strategy as a military operation. Directing attention to the location of Israel’s long-standing nuclear weapons program, Nasrallah stressed that the drone “flew over sensitive installations inside southern Palestine and was shot down in an area near the Dimona nuclear reactor.” Whether or not the drone actually got near Dimona is doubtful. But in the context of escalating rhetoric by Hizballah that it may strike strategic targets in Israel if it were to attack Iran, it appears that Hizballah’s drone was meant to play as a “drone over Dimona” — a low-tech cyber-deterrent warning Israel that it might face dangerous consequences if it strikes Iran.
With its drone over Israel, Hizballah was also sending a message.