Interception of Israeli Drones by Hezbollah: Analysis and Consequences

By: Yair Ramati and Yaakov Lappin

On June 10, 2024, Hezbollah successfully downed the fifth Israeli medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV since the start of the war. This time, the system in question was a Hermes 900 (known in the Israeli Air Force as “Kohav/Star”) UAV, intercepted over Lebanon by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.

Hermes 900 shot down in Lebanese skies— (Hezbollah).

Why is this happening?

MALE-type UAVs, which are prevalent worldwide, are assessed to constitute the majority of the overall UAV market. They are typically divided into two categories, often onboard the same platform: One designed for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, and the other for attacking ground targets. This group includes the Hermes family from Elbit, the Heron series from Israel Aerospace Industries, the American Reaper and Predator from General Atomics, several Chinese models, the Turkish Bayraktar TB2, which has been sold to no fewer than 28 customers, and many others.

MALE UAVs generally weigh between 0.5 and 5 tons, operate at altitudes of 15,000 to 30,000 feet, and can loiter over a target for 24 hours or more. As sensors, sophistication, and Command & control and communication systems have improved, These UAVs have established dominance in intelligence, target detection, area scanning, and attack operations. Today, most advanced air forces all over the world rely heavily on these proven capabilities for significant portion of their missions, while the cost of these systems increasing alongside sensor improvements.

However, the same flight characteristics—long loiter time, slow speed, and high radar and electro-optical signatures—make them vulnerable to interception by air defense systems. While MALE UAVs theoretically fly above the maximum interception altitude of most shoulder-fired missiles (MANPADS), they fall well within the core of interception envelope of short- and medium-range air defense systems.

Unlike fighter jets that perform quick strikes and are exposed to air defense systems for only a few minutes, MALE UAVs loiter over enemy territory for extended periods, lacking evasion capabilities and often without any ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ self-defense suits.

Notably, the downing of the Israeli Hermes 900 UAV in Lebanon joins a series of similar incidents worldwide. In recent months, the Americans have lost several advanced and expensive Reaper UAVs in Yemen and West Iraq due to Iranian air defense systems. Meanwhile, on the Ukrainian front, Russian air defenses managed to down nearly the entire Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2 UAV fleet (50 units) within a few weeks. These examples highlight the difficulty MALE UAVs face surviving in the modern battlefield, where most armies operate.

So what has changed recently in the Middle Eastern arena?

Previously, the air defense systems available to terror armies like Hamas, Houthis, Shiite militias in Iraq, and Hezbollah – were insufficient to challenge such UAVs. Gradually, the Iranians have introduced air defense systems with interception capabilities at altitudes and ranges that threaten these aircraft. Prominent among these is the Iranian 358 missile, which is electro-optically guided to its target, as well as Iranian clones of American radar-guided air defense missiles.

Where is the market heading from here?

The centrality of the MALE UAV market, both commercially and operationally, dictates a response to the challenges posed by air defense systems. Looking at global solutions reveals a dual trend: on the one hand, shifting tasks to tactical arrays, such as smaller and cheaper UAVs, various attack quadcopters, loitering munitions, and more. On the other hand, assigning tasks to extremely expensive, stealthy, jet-powered UAVs. The expected market response of investing in the survival of MALE UAVs has not yet materialized.

Avenger – An example over a decade old of a jet UAV produced by General Atomics (MQ-20 Avenger). Wikipedia

Indeed, tactical UAVs, such as those manufactured by Aeronautics and others, are capable of performing diverse missions with a low-cost and impressive availability platform. Publications about the IDF’s Storm Clouds project, initiated in 2022, point to a similar trend.

According to these publications, it is an innovative UAV array for intelligence gathering and additional missions. A complementary step towards the lower tactical layer was reflected in 2023 when the Air Force launched a new squadron, 144, which will operate Orbiter UAVs—called “Nitzotz” (Spark). According to the Air Force, this is a “completely innovative platform with unprecedented capabilities in the UAV field.”

Additionally, there is a variety of commercial racers attack drones worldwide, human-operated, requiring a certain level of skill (FPV – first-person Person View). These drones carry munitions for precise, short-range attack missions. Their advantages lie in availability, price, and continuous improvements. Moreover, they benefit from the almost complete absence of interception risk, making it futile to exhaust the defender’s interceptor stockpile.

Another aspect of the low tactical layer, developed in the Ukrainian theater and adopted by the Americans and others, is the family of loitering munitions, mostly electric. This group demonstrates impressive performance in terms of accuracy, range, and lethality against both stationary and mobile targets. Most air defense arrays are practically ineffective in engaging them

Summary

In our assessment, the MALE UAV family is not expected to disappear from the market, although it will experience a constant erosion in dominance. Simultaneously, global investment in autonomous systems will increase, focusing more and more on lower and tactical layers. Only advanced and modern defense forces will be able to invest and equip themselves with expensive and stealthy high-layer systems.

This global trend also meets the Israeli defense establishment, which, according to signs and media reports, has preemptively organized for at least some of the characteristics of the growing air defense threat. Some might claim that we are facing an arms race that may, in fact, be favorable for the technological systems in which the Israeli industry excels.

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