June 1, 2024 | New York Post

Why 2024 is the ‘year of the drone’ after Iran’s attack on Israel

June 1, 2024 | New York Post

Why 2024 is the ‘year of the drone’ after Iran’s attack on Israel

On May 20 a group of young people had gathered at an outdoor lounge as darkness fell in the southern Israeli city of Eilat.

As they enjoyed their evening, an explosion lit up the sky over the Red Sea.

Footage showed a bright orange burst far in the distance.

It was one of two drones that had flown more than 500 miles from Iraq.

The drone attack on Eilat from Iranian-backed militias was only one shot in an Iranian drone war on Israel that has been increasing since Hamas launched its attack on the nation’s south last Oct. 7.

On April 13 that war reached previously unimaginable levels when the Islamic Republic launched a massive attack on Israel with more than 300 drones and missiles.

The attack began with a wave of 170 kamikaze drones — also known as the Shahed 136 and Shahed 131 in Iran.

The drones aren’t that large, 11 feet long, with an eight-foot wingspan. They weigh around 400 lbs and have a speed of 115 mph. This makes it about the size and dimensions of a large stingray, which the drone actually resembles in its delta-wing design and grey color.

The massive Iranian drone attack was the largest assault using kamikaze drones in history. It was akin to sending 170 small aircraft flying into battle.

Unluckily for Iran, the Israelis were ready.

Along with the US, UK and neighboring Arab nations, Israel had prepared for this moment.

Advanced F-35I warplanes were scrambled from southern Israel.

They hunted down most of the drones before they reached the nation’s airspace.

The drones didn’t stand much of a chance because they are relatively slow, and with the aid of radar and early warning, they can be detected and intercepted.

The battle that night in the skies over the Middle East was a watershed moment in the new era of drone warfare — helping to make 2024 quite possibly the year of the drone. 

Drones have been used by countries for decades, but now drones are taking over the battlefield.

Iran’s drone attack is just one curtain-raiser — lifted the veil on how drones can serve as a kind of instant air force for countries, like Iran, with weak air defenses.

This type of ad-hoc air force “is one of the most frequent threats we face from Hezbollah, the Houthis, Iran, Iraq, and also from Gaza” said Brig. Gen. (ret.) Yossi Kuperwasser, a senior project manager at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) and a senior research fellow at Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy.

Kuperwasser served as director-general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry and as head of the IDF Military Intelligence’s Research Division, and he is familiar with the emerging threats Israel faces.

He said the Israeli air force has developed numerous methods to deal with these threats, but newer generations of drones pose newer generations of challenges.

Air defenses like the Iron Dome claim high rate of success intercepting rockets, but today’s drone are managing to evade the Iron Dome, striking IDF soldiers, bases and other sites. 

“We should improve those methods. We did extremely well with the threat coming from Iran, we had a high interception rate. [However], especially with Hezbollah . . . we have to do better,” he said.

Better, because Hezbollah has been attacking Israel with kamikaze drones. “They [Hezbollah] have their eyes on suicide drones but also on drones that can . . . attack [by firing missiles] from the drone, which is something they have been recently boasting about,” he said last month.

Kuperwasser added that Iran and groups like Hezbollah have historically had a steep learning curve when it comes to drones — but have now revved up production with its partners in order to continually launch into Israel.

That partner, Iran, exports drones not only to proxy terror groups such as Hezbollah, but also to the Houthis in Yemen — where they been used to attack Red Sea shipping vessels — and to Russia where they are used in Ukraine.

The past decade has seen drones reach new levels of sophistication and ubiquity as they’re increasingly deployed by militaries and militias around the world.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s only a handful of countries, such as Israel and the United States, had access to drone technology.

At its most basic a drone is a pilotless, remote-control aircraft.

They are ideal for use in areas where risking a pilot’s life makes little sense.

When they were first invented in Israel in the early 1980s, drones looked like a large model airplane.

However, by the 1990s the iconic Predator drone was being flown by the US, with its sleek shape, slightly bulbous head and thin wings.

The Predator was huge — 66 feet long with a wingspan of 36 feet, similar to jet fighter aircraft.

For years drones, like the Predator, were seen as useful primarily for “dull, dirty and dangerous” missions.

This meant for surveillance missions where they might fly for 24 hours at a time, the dull part.

The “dirty” refers to missions such as strikes against terrorists in places far from home; and “dangerous” means missions in enemy airspace where drones might get shot down, saving pilots’ lives.

This perception began to change in the 2000s.

An article in the Air, Space and Power Journal in 2013 noted that US Predator and Reaper drones had now surpassed the flight hours of F-15s and predicted that drone pilots, operating remotely, would outnumber F-16 pilots in the US Air Force.

By 2019 the Bard College Center for the Study of the Drone concluded that more than 95 nations were using military drones.

“A lot of countries, not just technologically advanced countries . . . have gone out to create drone programs,” Dan Gettinger, co-director of the center, said at the time.

Drones were now being used by poorer countries and those without access to the latest satellite communications or electro-optics.

As access to this technology increased it meant that countries like Iran, under sanctions, could develop drones.

It also meant terrorist groups could acquire them as well. 

And so a drones arms race began, with the military drone market expected to be valued at nearly $28 billion by 2032.

This shift is similar to the race between countries in the early 20th century to build new types of battleships, or the race prior to the Second World War to deploy new types of tanks.

Each country has pursued its own concept of drone warfare.

China, for instance, has invested in a large number of relatively cheap drones and now dominates the commercial drone market through dronemaker DJI.

These small quadcopters are often found in everyday backyards, but have also been embraced by militaries who now view drones as a necessary battle-field evil.

Neighboring India is also pursuing an ambitious — yet still nascent — drone program.

Pakistan, Turkey and Taiwan have also joined the production push toward “drone independence.”

The Ukraine war has served as a pivotal proving ground for drone use in battle.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 it had the advantage in the air.

But Ukraine has managed to turn the tide by investing in small and medium-sized drones.

Upwards of 200 local companies have been tasked with building drones for the frontline.

Ukraine contracted for 300,000 drones in 2023, according to a recent report in Reuters. 

Drones are now so common at the front — up to 100,000 are being launched monthly — that they are second only to the rifle in terms of sheer battlefield numbers.

Also common are newly developed portable anti-drone defense systems that Ukrainian soldiers can wear like backpacks.

The Russian invader has also resorted to drones to terrorize Ukraine.

It has imported thousands of Shahed drones, the same type Iran used in the April attack on Israel.

“Iranian drones are extremely cheap and quite effective. They can inflict significant damage, especially to old buildings and civilian infrastructure,” said Ksenia Svetlova, an executive director of ROPES and non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Ukraine has improved ways to deal with this threat, but then also the drones were modified and are now armed with [newer] Qaem-5 guided bombs,” she noted.

The “Iranian-Russian drone project poses dangers to Europe and the Middle East: Russia is working hard on increasing its mass production while Iran is focusing on technological improvements.”

For Iran and Russia, the Shahed drone provides a number of benefits. Unlike American or Israeli drones — expensive and intended for complex missions — the Shahed 136 is cheap and expendable.

For a relatively small investment, Iranian-backed groups can threaten the world’s best militaries, such as Israel and the US.

Interestingly, it’s the US — which helped pioneer drone development — that is now playing catch up.

According to an article in the Telegraph last month, the US has a serious drone problem — and “could not survive for long in a Ukraine-level drone war.”

Today, drones have become true battlefield equalizers, major powers, poorer nations and terrorist groups alike. Some are armed with missiles and can hover targets for more than 24 hours.

Others are used for short-term missions, such as helping artillery spot enemies and monitor the battlefield, like by Israel in Gaza.

Increasingly though, drones are now deployed like Iran’s kamikazes — akin to cruise missiles — or are called “loitering munitions,” because they “loiter” over a target and then fly into it.

As the world enters a new era of drone warfare the types and uses of drones will only continue to evolve.

This year may be remembered as the year of the drone, a break with the evolution of the past and a shift into a new airborne era.

Seth Frantzman is an Adjunct Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing machines, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (2021).

Issues:

Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Israel Israel at War Military and Political Power Russia Ukraine