Eyeing growing threat, Israel looks to resolve security forces’ drone wars

Eyeing growing threat, Israel looks to resolve security forces’ drone wars

Government tells National Security Council to sort out whether army or police responsible for dealing with rogue unmanned aircraft

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

Illustrative: A remote controlled drone with a camera attached to it on February 18, 2015. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Illustrative: A remote controlled drone with a camera attached to it on February 18, 2015. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The cabinet on Sunday called for the National Security Council to sort out the country’s defenses against drones, after the state comptroller released a damning report last month showing the country was woefully unprepared to handle a growing roster of threats posed by the unmanned aerial vehicles.

The report, published on November 15, found that the military had yet to find a comprehensive way to deal with the UAVs and that there was significant confusion over which security service was responsible for different enforcement aspects relating to the tiny aircraft.

In recent years, drones have gotten smaller, cheaper, and more powerful. This has been a boon for everyone from security forces to wedding photographers, who gained access to previously hard-to-come-by technology, but it has also helped criminals and terrorist groups, who can use them to gather intelligence, carry out bombings, and disrupt air traffic.

While the Israel Defense Forces is clearly expected to confront drones flown by terrorist groups, it is unclear which security service is responsible for UAVs flown by Israelis inside Israel. The army sees this as the police’s domain, as it is a civilian matter, while the police see it as the army’s, since it is legally responsible for securing the country’s airspace.

In its announcement on Sunday, the cabinet said that all of this needed to be resolved by the National Security Council.

A ‘Matrice’ drone, with night-vision capabilities. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“The cabinet decided today to adopt a number of steps whose goal is to formalize the responsibility of defense against the threat posed by drones and to improve our defense against it,” according to a statement.

The National Security Council, an advisory body to the cabinet, was chosen to consult with the country’s various security services in order to determine how the issue should be addressed.

In addition to looking at the outright nefarious uses for drones, the state comptroller report also documented the considerable risk posed by inexperienced or ignorant operators flying them into dangerous situations.

Earlier this month, for instance, all flights to and from Ben Gurion Airport were grounded for 15 minutes after a civilian drone strayed into the airfield’s airspace, causing “a direct risk to the airplanes,” the Israel Airports Authority said at the time.

Observation tower at Ben Gurion International Airport. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

In recent years, the number of security incidents involving drones — like flying them into the path of airplanes — rose steadily, from one case in 2014 to 14 in 2015, and 24 in 2016. And as more people start flying more drones with limited supervision, there is no reason to expect this trend to change, according to the state comptroller report.

Part of the problem with getting that information to civilian operators is that there is currently no registration required for drones that are flown for non-commercial reasons, which represents the vast majority of the devices. According to the comptroller, some 98.6 percent of the 20,000 drones estimated to be in Israel are entirely unknown to regulators.

The government has long been aware of these issues. Ministers and officials have called for legislation to address them, but their proposals have yet to be approved or put into action.

Attack of the drones

On the technological and military fronts, the army has also yet to find a way to confront the threat of drones.

In 2016, the Israeli Air Force identified drones as a growing risk to national security.

According to the report, as a result of military assessments, then-deputy chief of staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan set out to create a way to “prevent [drones] from infiltrating the country’s territory; protect strategic sites; and defend the IDF’s operational areas.”

A small drone, ordered over the internet, seized by border crossing officials as it was being smuggled into the Gaza Strip, October 2017. (Defense Ministry)

Terror groups in the Gaza Strip and within the West Bank have small commercial drones for intelligence collection and continue to operate them. The Defense Ministry’s Crossing Authority regularly intercepts shipments of drones to the Gaza Strip, but there is no real way to know how many have made it past the inspectors or entered the coastal enclave through smuggling tunnels from Egypt.

Drones from Syria have infiltrated Israel’s airspace in recent years, and been knocked out of the sky by Patriot missiles. Hezbollah has also sent a number of drones into Israel spying purposes in the past.

The military, especially the air force, recently set to work creating protocols for soldiers on how to deal with drones and met with defense contractors to find technological solutions.

However, as of this summer, the IDF had yet to find a “comprehensive solution,” but was “in an accelerated process of expanding the operational response to the threat of drones,” the army told the comptroller.

The report acknowledged that the army was working to address the problem, but said it is “of the utmost importance that the army work to complete its work as quickly as possible.

This is a “developing, unique and worrying threat” and the “risk is growing that the enemy’s deployment of drones will not be met with an adequate response,” the comptroller wrote.

In response to the report, the army said in a statement that it would “devote resources to advancing ways to deal with the threat of drones,” but that it was also working to counter other pressing security challenges.

The IDF or the police?

The legislation governing which security service is responsible for securing Israeli airspace was written more than 30 years ago, when drone technology was something most militaries did not possess. The 1985 law determined that this duty fell to the Israeli Air Force.

But in recent years, the military has taken the view that monitoring civilians flying drones inside Israel should be the responsibility of the police, as they are charged with “maintaining public order.” The police, meanwhile, insist on a straightforward interpretation of the 1985 law and say the skies are the army’s problem.

To sort out this controversy, for over two years, the National Security Council has been working on a law that would clearly define areas of responsibility. There is general agreement on how it should look, but some specific details still need to be sorted out and efforts to do so have stalled, according to the report.

The council’s proposal would see the army tasked with shooting down drones that try to enter Israeli airspace or are illegally flown over the West Bank and military installations inside Israel. The police would be responsible for drones being flown over public spaces as part of their duties to maintain order. And the other security services — the Shin Bet, Mossad, Prison Service, etc. — would monitor the skies over their own installations.

The comptroller called for the passage of such a law, but recognizing that this would take time, said an interim decision should be made quickly on this issue.

In addition, the report said that the Civil Aviation Authority should set up a better regulatory system that would require registration for all drones, not just commercial ones, and should have the ability to levy steep fines for violations of safety protocols.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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