Israel's downing of three drones on Saturday illustrates the growing nexus of Iran-Hezbollah threats in the region – and specifically the Lebanese terrorist organization's escalating attempts to target gas platforms off the coast of Israel.
Over the last several years, Iran has rapidly expanded its drone program and encouraged its proxies in the region to develop their own drone technology. These drones are often kamikaze ones, meaning they have a warhead and are designed to fly into their target. The drone threat against Israel has emerged slowly, in stages, over the last several years. Hezbollah has been using drones for many years, but they are increasingly more sophisticated and the threat is growing.
The UAVs shot down on Saturday appear to be of several different types. It is unclear if they carried explosives and how they were controlled. They do not appear to have been linked together to act as a kind of drone swarm.
In 2019 Iran used drones and cruise missiles to attack Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq facility. It also operationalized Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq to target Saudi Arabia using drones.
Iran moved drone technology to the Houthis in Yemen who have launched numerous drone attacks against Saudi Arabia over the years. In January, the threat grew to include attacks on the UAE.
Hezbollah has about 2,000 UAVs
The Alma Research and Education Center said in December 2021 that, "in the special report we published on December 21, we stated that we estimate that today Hezbollah has approximately 2,000 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Over the past 15 years, there has been a huge increase in the number of Hezbollah's UAVs."
Iran has increasingly used its militias in Iraq and Syria to target both the Kurdistan autonomous region in Iraq and US forces in Iraq and Syria using drones.
Israel's efforts to combat the drone threat
The downing of the drone illustrates Israel's abilities in detecting drones and also Israel's investment over the years in technology to down them. These include the use of warplanes and Barak surface-to-air missiles, and equipping Israel's latest corvette ships with the best systems to detect and stop drone and missile threats.
Israel has increased the abilities of Iron Dome to stop these types of threats as well. In addition, the Jewish state continues to carry out the campaign between the wars to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria. However, the overall context is that Iran is increasing the range of its drones, which are proliferating all over the region.
Last year it is believed that Iran moved Shahed 136 drones to Yemen. These may have a range that enables them to strike Eilat.
In addition, Tehran increased its investment in Iraqi-based militias such as Kataib Hezbollah to increase their drone and missile threats.
Israel is increasing its work with US Central Command and Navcent, as well as with new partners in the Gulf to discuss air defense priorities and drone threats.
The drone threat on July 2, therefore, is part of the much wider Iranian threat, and ties into the importance of Israel's work with the US, UAE, Bahrain and other countries in the region to prevent destabilization.
The US is increasingly concerned about Iranian drone threats. Members of Congress have also worked on the Deterring Enemy Forces and Enabling National Defenses (DEFEND) Act and the Stop Iranian Drones Act. All of this is important in the context of Hezbollah's recent escalation.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.