IDF airs footage of drone interceptions, accuses Iran of escalating ‘UAV terror’

Military officials see rising trend of Iranian drone activity in recent years, as Tehran aims to supply affiliate groups with thousands of aircraft

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

As officials in recent days have said a potential nuclear deal between Iran and world powers may be in the offing, the Israeli military on Monday published fresh allegations regarding Tehran’s drone program, including new footage of Israeli planes downing several Iranian unmanned aircraft.

Israel has repeatedly warned that Iranian drones are a significant threat to the region — especially as Tehran arms proxies stationed along Israel’s borders — highlighting the fact that the emerging nuclear deal does not address the drone issue, as well as the larger question of Iranian proxies.

Military officials said Monday that Iran’s “UAV terror” is a new and global issue, accusing Tehran of directly attacking both military and civilian targets in the Middle East.

On Sunday evening, the Israel Defense Forces announced that its F-35 jets downed two Iranian drones that were ferrying firearms on March 15 of last year. The military believes the drones were headed to terror operatives in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, based on their flight path, similar to the interception of another aircraft in 2018.

The IDF said it was the first time F-35 jets have been used to take down a drone.

The military published a video (above) of the interceptions, as well as an image showing that one of the aircraft was carrying several pistols.

In this handout image published by the Israel Defense Forces on March 7, 2022, the remains of an Iranian drone with a payload of firearms is seen on March 15, 2021. (IDF)

The military identified the UAVs as Iranian Shahed-197 models. Produced by Iran’s defense industries, the aircraft has a flight range of 2,000 kilometers, a top speed of 200 kilometers per hour, and a wingspan of seven meters. The UAV is capable of carrying a payload of dozens of kilograms, the IDF said.

The IDF also released new details on an Iranian drone downed on February 10, 2018, while it was allegedly ferrying TNT to terrorist operatives in the West Bank, as Defense Minister Benny Gantz revealed last year.

According to military estimates, the Shahed-141 model launched from the T-4 airbase in Syria is capable of flying 185 kilometers per hour, and has a wingspan of 4-6 meters. That drone was downed by Israeli combat helicopters.

A video of the 2018 interception was also published, along with footage of Israel conducting airstrikes in Syria in response.

New details on another Iranian UAV launched toward northern Israel in May 2021, amid an 11-day-war between Israel and terror groups in the Gaza Strip were also published.

The Sammad-type UAV, capable of carrying a 115-kilogram payload, was downed near Beit She’an in northern Israel. That drone was launched from Iraq, apparently by Iran-backed militias in the area.

Military officials said they saw a trend in Iranian drone attacks in recent years, beginning with the UAV downed over northern Israel in 2018, and a massive attack on the Saudi petroleum company Aramco in 2019.

Since then, there have been over a dozen other incidents — which Israel believes Iran is involved in — of drones attacking Israeli-linked vessels at sea, American troops in Iraq, and targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The IDF believes Iran is attempting to arm all of its proxies in the region — in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen — with hundreds and even thousands of UAVs, in addition to providing military training.

The remains of an alleged Iranian drone that was downed over northern Israel, parts of which fell in a fish pond in Kibbutz Maoz Haim, on May 14, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

While Israel has acknowledged it targets the bases of Iranian forces and allied terror groups in Syria, as well as arms shipments believed to be bound for Iran-backed groups in the region, The Times of Israel has learned several of those strikes specifically targeted sites related to Iran’s drone program.

The IDF said all three interceptions were conducted “in coordination with neighboring countries.” Last month, Israeli television reported that Israel and its regional allies were developing a joint defense pact to protect against the threat of drones.

The timing of the IDF’s publication was thought to be related to the ongoing, and reportedly near-completed, nuclear talks in Vienna.

Negotiators on all sides have signaled in recent days that a potential agreement to revive the deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is close. Last week, Gantz said a nuclear deal may be signed “in the coming weeks, perhaps even in the coming days.”

The original 2015 agreement gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, but the US unilaterally withdrew from it in 2018 under then-president Donald Trump, who reimposed heavy economic sanctions.

In this handout image published by the Israel Defense Forces on March 7, 2022, the remains of an Iranian drone is seen on March 15, 2021. (IDF)

Still, talks have become bogged down due to tensions between Russia — a signatory to the deal — and the West over its invasion of Ukraine late last month.

Gantz called in a Monday Facebook post for the world to “act against Iranian aggression,” vowing that Israel would continue to act in its own defense regardless of any deal reached by world powers with Iran.

Efforts to lobby the international community may be a hard sell as Israel has rebuffed pressure from the West to fully back Ukraine, seeking to balance humanitarian concern and its desire to keep ties with Moscow from souring.

Russia has tacitly allowed Israel to carry out operations against Iran-backed targets in Syria, access that Israel fears will be limited should Russia stop allowing the sorties.

Military officials say the IDF is always on full alert to protect Israel’s skies from drones. However, last month Israeli air defenses failed to down a small drone that entered the country from Lebanon, which the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group claimed responsibility for launching.

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