Eye on the Middle East | Drones and deterrence in the Israel-Hezbollah dynamic - Hindustan Times
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Eye on the Middle East | Drones and deterrence in the Israel-Hezbollah dynamic

Jun 23, 2024 10:00 AM IST

Hezbollah's unprecedented drone footage over Israel's Haifa Port represents a strategic shift in the use of drones.

In November 2004, a Mirsad-1 drone (a modified version of Iran’s Mohajer) entered Israel, hovered over the town of Nahariya, conducted surveillance, and returned to Lebanon — successfully beating Israeli air defences — all for the first time. Over the next two years, the Lebanese Hezbollah would test several such drone incursions into Israel, sometimes carrying limited explosives, with the group’s chief Hassan Nasrallah claiming that the Mirsad could reach anywhere in Israel. However, the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war would feature little use of these new armaments by Hezbollah with its arsenal yet to develop fully. Twenty years later, on June 18, 2024, Lebanon’s Hezbollah used a drone for another unprecedented feat — to publish a nine-minute video from a purported Hezbollah drone over the Israeli Port of Haifa. The footage focused on the Rafael Military Industries Complex, showing key defence equipment manufacturing sites, air defence systems, missile stores and testing tunnels, Haifa naval base, submarine unit command buildings and numerous other sites.

An Israeli fighter jet releases flares, and a drone is seen from Rafah, Gaza Strip, on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kreem Hana)(AP) PREMIUM
An Israeli fighter jet releases flares, and a drone is seen from Rafah, Gaza Strip, on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kreem Hana)(AP)

As war clouds over the Israeli-Lebanese border only grow darker, how Middle Eastern armed groups use drones, has evidently evolved. Hezbollah’s June usage especially, is Exhibit A.

The Drone Donors

In the last decade, two states in particular, besides Israel, have dominated drone production in the Middle East — Iran and Turkey. Notwithstanding the drone production capabilities of other Arab states, which also heavily import from China, Tehran and Ankara have arguably been the most successful in projecting their drone production capabilities in conflicts abroad. For instance, Turkey’s Bayraktar TB-2 drones have been extensively used by the Ukranian forces to hurt Russian field assets, with the Baykar Defense firm even setting up a drone production facility near Kyiv in February. It was the TB-2 that Ukraine reportedly used (with other platforms) to sink the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s flagship — the Moskva — in April 2022. While Turkey has exported the drones to over 30 countries, the most prominent (and arguably most publicised) use of the TB-2 was by Azerbaijan in its war against Armenia in 2020 in Nagorno-Karabakh. While the success of the Bayraktar drones has proven the changing nature of warfare, the Turkish drones have mostly featured in conventional state-on-state warfare. Belligerent states have used drones as part of their operations to achieve tactical gains that can aid in strategic objectives. For a state that seeks to project power in its immediate neighbourhood and beyond despite immense economic strain, investing in (relatively) low-cost but high-yield platforms for export, such as drones, is invaluable.

For Iran on the other hand, the economic rationale is exacerbated due to the weight of sustained US sanctions — forcing Tehran to innovate and further cooperate with China and North Korea. Iran's expertise in developing long- and short-range drones (Shahed-136 and Mohajer-6) has propelled it into another successful drone exporter, especially to conflict-ridden states. Incrementally improving in quality (stealthier) as well as in quantity (higher production), Iran has exported its drones to Ethiopia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, and more. Most importantly (with each unit costing between $20,000-40,000), Iran had exported between 2,000-4,000 Shahed 136 and 131 drones to Russia by the beginning of 2024 — proving their appeal to conventional forces in combat. By contrast, Turkey’s Bayraktar TB-2 costs an estimated $2 million to $5 million.

What sets Iran’s drone export network apart from Turkey, however, is the significant exports to armed non-state actors in the region that act as Tehran’s proxies. The low cost of Iranian drones allows these actors to use them for kamikaze missions (also part of Russia’s operations in Ukraine), generating more appetite for these actors to test belligerent states’ air defences since they can bear the cost of losing the drone. It is the Shahed-131 and its variants that were reportedly used in the attacks on Saudi and Emirati oil installations (2019, 2021, 2022). Even as doubts remain over the drones used by the Houthis in their attacks on Arab states, the group’s use of the Shahed-136 ‘one-way’ drone for its ongoing Red Sea siege is concrete proof of the effectiveness of this single platform of Iranian origin. While groups such as the Islamic Resistance of Iraq also use variants of the Iranian Shahed against US troops in Iraq and Syria, the group which possesses the largest regional arsenal of Iranian drones and missiles, is Lebanon’s Hezbollah. From the short-range Mirsad-1 to the long-range Ayoub (a derivative of Iran’s Shahed-129), Hezbollah now fields thousands of these drones to challenge Israel’s air dominance.

What’s new in Hezbollah’s drone tactics?

When Hezbollah released its unprecedented footage surveilling Israeli security sites, it marked something new — not simply in terms of the group’s capabilities to beat Israeli air defences and loiter over strategic sites, but in terms of what it implies conceptually. Traditionally, given the nature of drone warfare (low human risk, high reward), such successful penetration of a state’s airspace by an armed group is usually for an attack, or to publish verifiable proof of attack. However, Hezbollah’s drone video is arguably the first time a non-state actor has used a surveillance drone as a deterrence tool. It injects more sophistication into state/non-state dynamics, as the group stomached the risk of further raising Israel’s guard over what could otherwise be a plump target in armed combat. Essentially then, notwithstanding the possibility of Hezbollah still hitting the Rafael Complex should war break out, Hezbollah prioritised the deterrence value that such a video generates, over an actual attack on the site in a potential war.

As the IDF prepares for war (its Northern Command has reportedly approved plans for an offensive into Lebanon) Hassan Nasrallah made a telling speech on June 20. While warning Israel against war, Nasrallah asserted that Hezbollah was a changed force — that its attacks would now be precise without “random bombardment”. “Every drone will have a target. Every missile will have a target,” he said. While the precision targeting of strategic assets in an enemy state is not new for Iranian proxies (whether on land or at sea), Hezbollah’s choice to use its drones to warn first rather than to attack and verify, is novel. Just as Iran used its drones as a capability demonstrator during its direct attack on Israel (responding to the Israeli bombardment of the Iranian Consulate in Syria), Hezbollah’s actions mimic that of a state looking to rationally increase costs for the enemy state and deter it from opening a wider front.

As this column highlighted earlier, both Hezbollah and Israel have enough incentives to avoid a full-fledged war. However, should the IDF mount a larger offensive into Lebanon, the war is bound to feature hitherto unseen levels of drone usage — Hezbollah’s drone arsenal began to develop in 2012, six years after its last war with Israel. Now armed to the teeth, Hezbollah’s drones will not have to traverse the large expanse of territory that Iran-launched drones had to in early 2024. A glimpse of the new character of Hezbollah-Israel warfare has already been evident with the Lebanese group targeting Israeli coastal posts and buildings used by the IDF at Ras-al-Naqoura with kamikaze drones.

Bashir Ali Abbas is a research associate at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi, and a South Asia Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC. The views expressed are personal.

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