State watchdog: Army has no comprehensive solution to drone threat

Damning report finds government failing to address growing risk posed to national security by unmanned aerial vehicles

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative. A Mavic drone, manufactured by the Chinese company DJI. (ThoroughlyReviewed/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
Illustrative. A Mavic drone, manufactured by the Chinese company DJI. (ThoroughlyReviewed/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

As drones become more affordable, powerful, and prevalent, Israel’s security forces and regulators have failed to adequately confront the threats posed to public safety by the world-changing technology, according to a state comptroller report released Wednesday.

Once an expensive and complicated device, small multi-rotor drones have become ubiquitous in a few short years. According to the Civilian Aviation Authority, Israelis currently own approximately 20,000 drones that are used for everything from taking overhead videos at weddings to assisting rescue workers to locate people trapped in collapsed buildings.

But these unmanned aerial vehicles have also become more accessible to criminals and terrorists, who can use it to plan and carry out their crimes.

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira presents the State Comptroller’s Report in the Knesset on November 1, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Though it has been working on the problem for over a year, the military has yet to find a comprehensive way to address this threat, State Comptroller Yosef Shapira found.

Also, 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 responsible for securing the country’s airspace.

“The significance is that there exists a vacuum in the areas of responsibility and authority, and as a result there’s no way to give an adequate response at the national level to the threat of drones that originate in the State of Israel, which raises the risk of harming state security,” the report said.

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.

A drone hitting a large passenger plane could cause significant damage to the motor or the body of the plane and would endanger the flight’s safety

The reported noted a number of examples over the past two years of UAVs being flown too close to the Ben Gurion International Airport and other smaller regional airfields, which threatened the safety of incoming and outgoing planes.

According to Eran Ramot, a former fighter pilot and aviation expert at the Fisher Institute, planes that are landing and taking off are at greater risk than those flying at high altitude.

“A drone hitting a large passenger plane could cause significant damage to the motor or the body of the plane and would endanger the flight’s safety,” he said.

This makes it crucial for the government to set down clear guidelines for civilians on how close they can fly drones to airfields.

Illustrative. SELFLY’s camera drone helps do away with old-fashioned selfie sticks (Courtesy)

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 is aware of these issues. The ministers and officials responsible have called for legislation to address them, but their proposals have yet to be approved and put into action. As the comptroller expects this will take several months, if not longer, to happen, he called for interim solutions to be found.

The report dealt with small drones, the kind that can be easily purchased commercially — not the large variety used by militaries for surveillance and bombings. The comptroller’s office began work on the report in September 2016 and presented its findings to the relevant government offices in April 2017.

Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich attends a faction meeting in the Knesset on February 6, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In response to the condemnatory document on Wednesday, Zionist Union MK Shelly Yachimovich, who chairs the Knesset’s State Control Committee, called for an emergency meeting of the defense issues subcommittee in order to discuss the comptroller’s findings.

“The report shows a disturbing and worrying picture, in the civil and criminal realm and from a defense-terror viewpoint. A regulatory and enforcement vacuum, a lack of deterrence, governmental foot-dragging, disagreements over responsibility by security services — we don’t have the privilege of allowing these things in light of the presence of numerous security threats,” Yachimovich said.

No comprehensive solution yet

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

“The [drones] field is in the midst of a rapid expansion, technologically and in terms of distribution, and it is expected to become an integral part of the battlefield,” IAF Intelligence said in a presentation to the comptroller.

In January, the National Security Council came to a similar conclusion, saying the small, multi-rotor drones present a specific threat due to their low cost, ease of use and widespread availability.

According to the report, as a result of these 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 and continue to operate small commercial drones for intelligence collection. The Defense Ministry’s Crossing Authority regularly intercepts shipments of drones to the Gaza Strip, but there’s no real way to know how many have made it past the inspectors or entered the coastal enclave through smuggling tunnels from Egypt.

The military, especially the air force, 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, that 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 security challenges.

Sorting out responsibility

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 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.

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