Eyeing drone threat from Iran, Israel working to boost radars, air defenses

Military hopes to have full coverage of northern airspace within two years, as part of plan to establish a nationwide air defense umbrella

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Iron Dome defense missile systems are pictured in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, on April 24, 2021. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Iron Dome defense missile systems are pictured in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, on April 24, 2021. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces is working to significantly boost its air defenses, particularly in northern Israel, in light of the growing threat of Iranian-made and Iranian-designed drones that have flooded into the Middle East in recent years, The Times of Israel has learned.

Within two years, the IDF intends to have a full, permanent defensive coverage in place over the airspace of northern Israel, with plans to eventually expand this to the entire country. Currently, the Israeli Air Force, which is tasked with defending the nation’s skies, has a number of fixed air defense systems in various parts of the country, which are supplemented by mobile batteries in times of heightened tensions or when attacks are expected.

In addition to the threats that Israel’s air defenses have faced in the past — rocket and missile fire, enemy aircraft — the IDF is now increasingly forced to contend with large and small unmanned aerial vehicles. Once the domain of nation-states, drone technology has become increasingly available to terrorist groups.

Countering drone attacks is particularly difficult as the UAVs are more difficult to detect than comparatively larger manned aircraft, and fly at lower altitudes and with less predictable flight patterns than rockets.

Israeli officials point to the devastating 2019 attack by Iran on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facility, which was conducted with both drones and cruise missiles, as a wake-up call to the severity of the threat posed by these weapons.

“It was a sophisticated attack that managed to evade both US and Saudi defenses… Anyone who says that it can’t happen to us isn’t a professional,” Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, now the head of Military Intelligence, said at the time.

In the two years since the Aramco attack, this threat has only grown, as Iran has exported drones to its Houthi allies in Yemen, to proxies in Syria and Iraq, and to the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon — the main military threat facing the IDF — as well as supplying designs for UAVs to Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups in the Gaza Strip. Some of these drones have ranges of thousands of kilometers and others have stealth capabilities, some of which Iran has stolen from American models.

A satellite photograph of an alleged Iranian base that Defense Minister Benny Gantz says is used to train Iranian proxies to operate advanced drones on September 12, 2021. (Defense Ministry)

Last month, Defense Minister Benny Gantz revealed the location of an Iranian airbase that he said was used to train Tehran’s regional proxies to operate advanced drones.

“One of the significant tools that Iran has developed to assist its proxies is an array of unmanned aerial vehicles that can travel thousands of kilometers, and thousands of them are spread throughout Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon,” Gantz said.

Israel shot down one such drone in May, which then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said had been flown into Israeli airspace by Iran from either Syria or Iraq.

To improve the military’s ability to detect drones, the IAF is procuring additional radar arrays to be installed in northern Israel, The Times of Israel has learned.

Wind farms, like this one near Kibbutz Ein Zivan, may grant the Golan Heights energy independence within five years (Photo credit: Flash 90)
A wind farm near Kibbutz Ein Zivan on the Golan Heights (Flash90)

Most of the funding for this effort has already been allocated, with some of it — roughly a quarter of a billion shekels — coming from a deal that was brokered in late 2019 between the Defense, Energy, and Finance ministries. That agreement also secured the military’s approval for the construction of wind turbines on the Golan Heights. (As such turbines interfere with radar reception, the money was meant to go toward developing technological solutions to work around those issues.)

Israel has also made a number of improvements to the short-range Iron Dome missile defense system to allow it to shoot down drones as well, an innovation that was first put to the test during May’s conflict between the IDF and terror groups in the Gaza Strip, when the Iron Dome intercepted its first drone. Work is also underway to provide similar capabilities to the medium-range David’s Sling air defense system.

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