In December 1998, in Kandahar, the CIA received actionable information regarding the location of Osama bin Laden. The source was only somewhat reliable, however, and the strike, by cruise missiles, could result in the death of as many as 300 bystanders. The Pentagon and the CIA chief at the time, George Tenet, decided to hold fire. The 9-11 Commission reported that, “After this episode Pentagon planners intensified efforts to find a more precise alternative.”
The result: the weapons-bearing unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone.
Today, drones are utilized by law enforcement to monitor borders and by environmentalists to track Japanese whaling boats. Meteorologists want to use them to penetrate into the eye of storms. Paparazzi are trying to develop them to spy on celebrities. They can be controlled by iphone. They can be bought over Amazon. They can weigh as little as four ounces. Yet the military ones that buzz over the skies of Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Gaza and Israel are the bulk of the world’s unmanned aerial vehicles and they are changing the face of war.
For Israel that means more attacks like the one this Saturday, when an apparently outdated and relatively primitive surveillance drone came over the Mediterranean and, perhaps in an attempt to masquerade as part of Israel’s own aerial traffic, flew over Gaza toward the Israeli desert. The drone was shot down some 18 miles north of Israel’s Negev Nuclear Research Center in Dimona.
Most accusatory fingers in Israel have pointed toward Hezbollah and Iran. The former has launched several drones toward Israel in the past, and the latter, according to a September Global Post report, has been using extensive drone technology over the past several months in Syria, including to facilitate the killing of American journalist Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik in Homs.
Iran has a fleet consisting of 15 different drone models. Last Tuesday the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ aerospace division, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, claimed that the Iranian armed forces had developed a UAV that can fly 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) and can carry “bombs and missiles.”
This claim seems farfetched. The Ababil, or Swallow, perhaps the model that penetrated Israeli air space on Saturday, for instance, cannot deploy weapons. It can execute a “suicide” mission, crashing into a target with a 75-pound warhead.
Nor can it relay surveillance information back to its senders in real time. In order to do that, the drone would need to either maintain a line of vision with its launch station — highly unlikely if in fact Saturday’s drone was launched from Lebanon, as has been widely speculated — or it would have to relay the information through a satellite, “a capability which Iran lacks in all of its UAVs,” said Tal Inbar, the head of the Space and UAV Research Center at the IAF-affiliated Fischer Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies.
In general, Inbar said, Iran is “20-plus years behind modern UAVs.”
Its race to close the gap, however, is indicative of a global trend.
In the fall of 2001, after the 9-11 attacks, the US armed forces had fewer than 50 drones, according to a CNN report. Today they have 7,500.
Currently only Israel, the US and the UK have drones that can fire weapons. But drone technology has been proliferating fast. Once the exclusive domain of the US and Israel, an estimated 70 countries possess drone technology today. Global investment in that technology is expected to nearly double over the next decade, from $6.6.billion to $11.4 billion, according to the Teal Group, a Virginia-based defense consulting firm quoted in the aforementioned CNN report.
In some ways this is good news for Israel. Today Israel is the world leader in exporting drones and drone technology abroad. The state-owned Israeli Aerospace Industries has exported the technology to Russia, Mexico and Nigeria, among others, according to the report.
What’s more, as Dr. Earl William Powers, a Research Fellow at the United States Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, said in an interview with Defence IQ today, UAVs don’t “have a mother,” and for that reason alone they are very attractive to the US Armed Forces. This, too, is the case for Israel.
But they are also deadly.
Muhammad Atef, an al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan, is the first man known to have been killed by a UAV. That was in November 2001. Since then the US has launched some 300 drone attacks outside the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, killing an estimated 2,000 militants and an unknown number of civilians, according to a Foreign Policy report.
These numbers, and the deadly efficacy of the strikes, have apparently not been lost on Iran and Israel’s other enemies.