IAF says over 150 enemy drones intercepted during war; detecting them a challenge

Topography on Lebanon border, drones’ short flight paths test Israeli air defenses; 19,000 unguided rockets fired at country since October 7

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

This picture shows a battery of Israel's Iron Dome air defense system deployed on April 15, 2024. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
This picture shows a battery of Israel's Iron Dome air defense system deployed on April 15, 2024. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Amid the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip and fighting on the Lebanon border, the Israeli Air Force has downed more than 150 drones using ground-based systems, such as the Iron Dome, according to new data published by the military on Monday.

Many more drones were downed by fighter jets, according to the IAF.

Drone attacks have largely been carried out from Lebanon. Several have been launched from Gaza, and there have also been numerous drones launched by Iran-backed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah in recent months has increasingly been using explosive-laden drones, alongside anti-tank guided missiles and barrages of rockets.

The terror group’s near-daily explosive-laden drone attacks from Lebanon recently have been one of the IAF Aerial Defense Array’s most significant challenges during the war. In numerous cases, the IAF has been challenged to detect the threat in time to intercept it, leading to casualties.

Hezbollah’s drones have largely targeted army positions or Israeli communities on the border, with a handful of incidents of drones being launched much farther, even up to 40 kilometers deep into Israel.

A drone fired by Hezbollah from Lebanon hits a a community center in the northern border community of Arab al-Aramshe on April 17, 2023 (Screen capture X: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

While being able to detect drones accurately is important, it is also a complicated part of thwarting the threat, IAF officials said.

The Aerial Defense Array uses a wide range of sensors to detect what it calls “suspicious aerial targets” heading into Israeli airspace. Repeatedly, with Israeli radars set to high sensitivity, many such targets were later determined to have been “false identifications” — often birds.

At times, Israeli drones that failed to identify themselves correctly were also shot down.

Still, Hezbollah’s drones are not always identified by the IAF until it is far too late to intercept them.

A Hezbollah drone is seen near Acre in northern Israel, February 20, 2024.(Screenshot: X)

The topography on the Lebanon border, with many ridges and hills, can potentially be a challenge for Israeli radar as drones fly through. This, combined with the often very short flight paths, makes it difficult for the IAF to respond in time to an attack when it does detect the drone.

In contrast, during Iran’s attack on Israel on April 14, the IAF and its allies were able to detect hundreds of Iranian drones heading toward Israel hours in advance, preventing any of them from entering Israeli airspace.

During the attack, Israel’s air defense array was put to its largest-ever test with the launch of hundreds of missiles and drones from Iran, almost all of which were downed with the help of the US, Jordan, the UK, and France.

The IAF said that nothing in the Aerial Defense Array is automatic, and its soldiers carry out every identification and launch of an interceptor manually. This is to prevent an accidental interception of a “friendly” aircraft, as well as to conserve interceptors in cases of false identifications.

View of a large fire caused from rockets fired from Lebanon, in the northern town of Kiryat Shmona, June 3, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

According to recent IAF assessments seen by The Times of Israel, Hezbollah has been attempting to harm Israel’s air defenses amid the fighting, and would especially work to target the Aerial Defense Array’s systems in an all-out war.

Last week, Hezbollah published a video showing it striking with a guided missile what it claimed was an Iron Dome launcher in northern Israel.

In a war, Hezbollah is likely to launch swarms of drones, rather than two or three at a time as it currently does, in what could become a major challenge, according to IAF assessments.

As part of the IAF’s moves to counter the Hezbollah drone threat, it established several new Iron Dome batteries, as well as forming a new battalion to operate the short-range air defense system.

The Iron Dome is the lowest layer of Israel’s multi-tiered air defense system, and it has downed tens of thousands of rockets, mortars, and drones launched at Israel since 2011.

The newly established 139th Battalion is Israel’s third Iron Dome battalion, after the 137th and 947th. The Israeli Navy also has a version of the Iron Dome aboard its four Sa’ar-6 class corvettes.

Illustrative – Rockets fired from southern Lebanon are intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system over the Golan Heights on May 16, 2024. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

The IAF has also moved to shutter its aging Patriot missile defense systems, which were designed to shoot down aircraft and not small drones.

The middle tier of Israel’s air defense array is the David’s Sling system, which is designed to shoot down medium-range projectiles. The longest-range system is the Arrow, designed to intercept large ballistic missiles.

Over 19,000 rockets fired into Israel since start of war

The military also said on Monday that more than 19,000 unguided rockets have been launched at Israel since the start of the war in October.

The projectiles were mostly fired from the Gaza Strip, although the portion of rocket attacks from Lebanon has been steadily growing in recent months.

Thousands of those rockets have been intercepted by air defenses.

The tally only includes projectiles that crossed into Israeli territory. Israel has previously said hundreds or even more rockets launched from Gaza misfired and landed inside the Strip. Many Hezbollah rockets have also fallen short in Lebanon.

It also doesn’t include scores of guided anti-tank missiles fired across the Israel-Lebanon border.

Smoke from rockets fired from Lebanon and from Israel Iron dome anti-missile system, near Mount Hermon, March 10, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

Since the day after Hamas’s October 7 attack, Hezbollah-led forces have targeted Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis, with the group saying it is doing so to support Gaza amid the war there.

So far, the skirmishes on the border have resulted in 10 civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of 15 IDF soldiers and reservists. There have also been several attacks from Syria, without any injuries.

Hezbollah has named 334 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, another 62 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and dozens of civilians have been killed.

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