BEIRUT: The recent mysterious disappearance of a suspected Israeli pilotless reconnaissance plane from the radar screen of the French UNIFIL battalion in south Lebanon has raised speculation that Hezbollah has found a way of electronically jamming and disabling drones.
Information has been circulating for over a year that Hezbollah has been exploring – and may have discovered – a means of jamming the data link between a drone and its ground control base or interfering with the guidance system of drones on pre-programed flight missions in order to crash them.
There is no confirmation yet that Hezbollah has acquired the ability to jam and destroy Israeli reconnaissance drones, but there is no question that its highly secret electronic warfare and communications capabilities have advanced tremendously over the past decade and will play a critical role in any future war with Israel.
The French UNIFIL battalion detected an aerial object on the afternoon of Oct. 29 as it passed over the Bint Jbeil area. The object’s radar signature indicated that it was a reconnaissance drone, one of dozens that fly over Lebanese airspace on a weekly basis. The French tracked the drone until it reached the area above Wadi Hujeir, a deep forested valley system east of the villages of Ghandourieh and Froun, when it suddenly vanished from the screen.
UNIFIL alerted the Lebanese Army and a search was conducted in the Wadi Hujeir area but nothing was found. There is unconfirmed information that a searchlight was seen in the valley, presumably used by someone other than UNIFIL and the army.
There is also unconfirmed information that another Israeli drone was deployed to Wadi Hujeir shortly afterward, possibly to look for the missing aircraft. There has been no mention in the Israeli media of a drone having been lost over Lebanon.
It is possible that the drone simply malfunctioned and crashed into Wadi Hujeir, although that would not explain the absence of wreckage. There are no known previous incidents of drones malfunctioning and crashing over Lebanon, although some have been shot down in the past. Also it is unclear how thoroughly UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army conducted their search. As far as UNIFIL is concerned, once the incident has been reported, it is the responsibility of the Lebanese Army to take the lead on any investigation and further ground searches.
Drones comprise about 70 percent of all Israeli overflights in Lebanese airspace and unlike jets, they are difficult to spot because of their size and the high altitude at which they usually operate. But UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army have no difficulty in tracking the drones on radar and sometimes identifying the model.
Israel has been using drones for reconnaissance in the Lebanon theater since the 1982 invasion. In the July 2006 war Israel deployed missile-firing drones for the first time, some of which were responsible for targeting civilian vehicles fleeing south Lebanon and attacking two parked ambulances in Qana during a transfer of injured individuals.
Although drones cannot carry the same amount of firepower as Israel’s fleet of Apache and Cobra helicopter gunships, they are stealthier, have the ability to deliver pin-point strikes and, for casualty-conscious Israel, there are no aircrews to lose.
In August 2010, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, revealed that in the mid-1990s the party had found a way to intercept and download the video feed from Israeli drones. The video footage was unencrypted at the time which allowed Hezbollah’s technicians to watch on television screens whatever the drones had been filming. According to Nasrallah, it was this intelligence-gathering technique that allowed Hezbollah to mount an ambush against a team of Israeli naval commandos beside the village of Ansariyah in September 1997, killing 12 of them. Israel began encrypting its drone video data following the Ansariyah debacle after suspecting that Hezbollah may have found a way to intercept it.
In the mid-1990s, Hezbollah’s electronic warfare capabilities were limited, mainly to scanners to record garrulous Israeli soldiers chatting on their cellphones in their frontline outposts.
Hezbollah’s electronic warfare and communications revolution took off from 2000 when it began building a military infrastructure of bunkers, tunnels and rocket-firing platforms in south Lebanon and connecting together its various facilities with a newly installed fiber-optic communications network.
Not only does Hezbollah have access to commercially available technology, it also benefits from Iran’s military-grade electronic warfare capabilities.
Although much attention is paid to Hezbollah’s acquisition of new weapons systems such as rockets and anti-aircraft assets, it is the advances in its electronic warfare capabilities – what one Hezbollah fighter termed the “war of brains” with Israel – that really illustrates the qualitative military leap Hezbollah has made in the past 15 years.
Given the importance to Israel of reconnaissance drones and given Hezbollah’s ability more than a decade and a half ago to intercept video feeds, it is only natural that Hezbollah’s technicians would be seeking ways of electronically disabling drones or cracking the encrypted video data.
Furthermore, Hezbollah is not alone in exploring drone interception. In December 2009, it was revealed that Kata’eb Hezbollah, an Iran-supported group in Iraq to which Lebanese Hezbollah has ties, had hacked into live video feeds of U.S. Predator drones operating in Iraqi airspace. U.S. soldiers had discovered “highly technical, highly sophisticated” equipment and recordings of downloaded video data from drones in the hands of captured Kata’eb Hezbollah personnel.
Since the Oct. 29 incident, UNIFIL has been buzzing with speculation about the possibility that Hezbollah may have brought down the drone electronically. It would not be the first time that UNIFIL has stumbled upon curious radar tracks. For a period in early 2010, UNIFIL radar stations picked up mysterious rocket launchings from the border district. The radar located the launch site, tracked the rocket’s trajectory and marked the impact location inside Israel. Yet, there was no further evidence rocket launches apart from the radar. At first, UNIFIL wondered whether Hezbollah had found a way of tricking radars by transmitting false signals to disguise real rocket launches.
Then UNIFIL thought Israeli electronic interference might be responsible but the peacekeepers were unable to come to any firm conclusion.