The Iranian drone shot down by the Israeli Air Force early Saturday morning appears to have been a relatively new stealth model whose design was stolen from an American unmanned aerial vehicle that was captured by Iran in 2011, according to aviation analysts.
On Saturday night, the Israel Defense Forces released photographs of the destroyed Iranian drone, which further enforced the view that the Iranian drone was a stealth model known as a — Thunderbolt, in English. These images joined video footage distributed by the army of the moments before the drone was shot down.
Michael Cruickshank, working with the air-force-focused Aviationist website, identified the Iranian drone as a Saeqeh that was first debuted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in 2016, based on the video footage.
Tal Inbar, an Israeli aviation expert for the Fisher Institute, agreed with the assessment, but noted that it was not clear from the video or the pictures which specific version of the drone was used.
The design for the Saeqeh, which looks something like a miniaturized B-2 bomber, is largely based on an American RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone, one of which Iran claimed to have shot down in December 2011, when it broadcast footage of the recovered aircraft.
Iranian media reported in October 2016 that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had built a new attack drone similar to the RQ-170 Sentinel.
Tehran also said in 2014 that it had successfully tested its own version of the drone. It said it managed to reverse-engineer the RQ-170 Sentinel, which was seized after it entered Iranian airspace from neighboring Afghanistan, and that it is capable of launching its own production line for the unmanned aircraft.
The video footage distributed by the IDF on Saturday showed both the interception of the drone by an IAF Apache attack helicopter and a subsequent airstrike on the mobile container from which it was controlled.
Cruickshank’s and Inbar’s assessments were not immediately confirmed by the IDF, but it did match descriptions of the drones by a top Israeli official.
Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar, the Israeli Air Force’s second-in-command, said Saturday the Iranian drone was quite advanced and emulated Western technology. He added that the drone remained in Israel’s airspace for a minute and a half, before being taken out by a combat helicopter over the city of Beit Shean, near the Jordanian border.
After the UAV was intercepted, Israel targeted at least 12 other sites “including three aerial defense batteries and four Iranian targets that are part of Iran’s military establishment in Syria,” according to a military statement.
Bar said Israel inflicted significant damage on Syrian air defenses, while saying the Israeli response was “the biggest and most significant attack the air force has conducted against Syrian air defenses since Operation Peace for the Galilee” in 1982 during the First Lebanon War.
Syria’s responding anti-aircraft fire led to the downing of an Israeli fighter plane in which two pilots were injured, one seriously and another lightly. Both were being treated at Rambam Hospital in Haifa.
Israel said the drone infiltration was a “severe and irregular violation of Israeli sovereignty,” and warned of further action against unprecedented Iranian aggression.
The events marked a dramatic escalation in tensions along Israel’s northern border, and were part of the most serious confrontation between Israel and Iran since the start of the civil war in Syria in March 2011.
Bar described the incident as “Syrian chutzpah,” and said Israel responded accordingly, adding that the airstrikes inflicted “significant harm to the Syrian Air Force’s defenses” which included “anti-aircraft batteries purchased in recent deals [with the Russians].”
Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus warned that Syria and Iran were “playing with fire,” but stressed his country was not seeking an escalation. “This is the most blatant and severe Iranian violation of Israeli sovereignty in the last years,” Conricus told journalists in a phone conference.
He did not say whether the drone was armed or for reconnaissance, but alleged it “was on a military mission sent by Iranian military forces” from an “Iranian base” in the Palmyra area.
The Israeli military said its planes faced massive anti-aircraft fire from Syria that forced the two pilots to abandon an F-16 jet that crashed in northern Israel. Bar said the pilots did not report being hit but carried out ejection procedures.
“We are verifying what caused the pilots’ injuries,” Bar said, “whether from an anti-aircraft missile or from ejecting. It’s not clear whether the missile hit the plane but we are assuming it did.”
If the plane was in fact shot down by enemy fire, it could mark the first such instance for Israel since 1982 during the first Lebanon war.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, and IDF Chief-of-Staff Gadi Eizenkot were convening with top brass at military headquarters in Tel Aviv for emergency consultations on Saturday to discuss a possible further response.
Meanwhile, Iran and Syria claimed Israeli allegations that an Iranian drone infiltrated Israeli airspace were lies.
Agencies contributed to this report.