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Drones Bring Concern Along with Achievement

Growing accessibility of unmanned vehicles creates threats and opportunities for Israel
[Jerusalem] Arguably, any military that considers itself to be a modern fighting force not already in possession of unmanned vehicles clearly is not: the age of the drone is not coming, it has arrived. Sobering is the reality that it is not just states and their security forces who make use of this state-of-the-art technology, but increasingly, non-state actors and terrorist groups are also utilizing sophisticated remotely controlled weapons of war.

Not surprisingly, Israel – a small country known for its prolific high-tech research and development in both the civilian and military spheres – finds itself at the center of the expanding unmanned vehicle (UV) arena due in large part to both its technical capabilities and experientially, as one of the first countries to face a threat from non-state actors utilizing drones. Although the Jewish state has ranked first among exporters of UVs for much of the last decade, the United States currently leads in the race for UV superiority with the largest fleet, the most advanced technology and the widest use of the systems within their military. But increasingly other countries are joining the party.

Both China and Russia are keen to integrate UVs into their militaries according to Liran Antebi, a researcher at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS). America’s ability to carry out military operations in areas of the world where it had little or no presence, such as drone strikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan and Yemen, is a model that the Kremlin has noticed, according to Antebi. Such a capability would be useful to the Russian model of hybrid warfare and deniable operations which have been seen in recent years. UV flights are a fraction of the cost of other methods of projecting military power and garner less media attention as a rule.

Further east, China is increasingly assertive in demonstrations of its military might in the Pacific. Antebi asserts that adding to this is a desire to match, or surpass, the size of the US remote controlled air fleet. Significantly, China is also one of the few countries manufacturing weaponized UVs which has not signed international agreements restricting sales of such systems for non-weaponized use. This could make Chinese manufactured drones the design of choice for non-state actors (read terrorists) wishing to get their hands on new technologies.

But it is not just large countries which are producing UVs. Smaller nations’ militaries have moved from a position where they bought drones to one where a growing number of states are developing and manufacturing their own aircraft, Antebi writes. Ethiopia, Nigeria and Iran, for example, have all demonstrated domestically-produced unmanned aerial vehicles, alarming observers who see nothing to prevent terrorist organizations from doing the same.

Both Hamas and Hizbullah have made use of UVs on a number of documented occasions. Hamas has attempted to use tactical level surveillance drones, efforts which have been more useful for their propaganda purposes than for any imagery broadcast back to Gaza. Hizbullah on the other hand is more sophisticated in its actions, to the extent that it has been accused of being a proxy operator for flying Iranian drones over Israel. The Lebanese Shi’ite group has graduated from attempting to fly explosive payloads onto Israeli targets to using the aircraft in a conventional reconnaissance role, like a modern army. Though neither organization has achieved a spectacular breakthrough with their UVs, mostly due to Israel’s vastly superior air defense infrastructure, they point to what could face states in the near future. With the exception of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, few terrorist organizations have been able to field any form of air force. Drones could very easily change this situation. This could not only allow terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas to carry out attacks but could enable them to acquire capabilities that until now were the monopoly of the militaries of sovereign states.

As the UV industry evolves the number of uses that armed groups could make of drones expands. Organizations in the future could make use of remote controlled vehicles for anything from drug smuggling to publicity stunts. Recent developments in the technology are gradually bringing drones from the sky to the sea, and eventually to land as well. This could fundamentally alter the ways that militaries, and the terrorist organizations that face them, operate.

There is a growing realization among potential users that the technology to allow naval vessels to be controlled remotely now exists, Dr. Noam Brook, head of Unmanned Marine Systems at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd., told The Media Line. Rafael is one of Israel’s leading producers of unmanned vehicle technology. Operating a UV on water is more complicated than in the air, Brook explained, because the environment is two-dimensional – the vessel has to deal with hazards and other boats which it will encounter on the water. “These are challenges that it took the customer some time to realize that the technology is here, (that) we can do this,” Brook said.

Maritime UVs will be used to protect coastline installations, off shore facilities or could even be used to patrol a safe perimeter around moving ships. Vessels are being equipped with loud speakers to hail other boats and water cannons as a non-lethal weapon to facilitate interactions that they may be called upon to make, outside of a military setting. The removal of the space needed for a crew allows vessels to be smaller, cheaper and more efficient, Brook said, possibly leading to a scenario where a naval ship could carry numerous UVs, to perform various missions, functioning like a mother ship. The relative low cost, and absence of humans on board, renders such vessels expendable – a useful feature for any military.
The next step in the evolution of drones, Brook said, is the transition onto land. A ground environment is even more complicated than the sea, so UVs for use on land remain a step behind their maritime cousins, Brook explained. But they are coming, he added: “just look at improvements in technologies for autonomous cars.”

Unmanned systems on land and sea are a direct evolution of what has been learned from remotely controlled aircraft, Dan Bichman, of Israel Aerospace Industries’ UAV Marketing branch, told The Media Line. “What you see here is based on the experience and the knowledge that was gathered through four decades.” In recent years more and more capabilities were passed from manned aircraft to unmanned versions – this process will happen with maritime and eventually land-based vehicles too, Bichman said. Any number of menial, dangerous or physically challenging tasks that army personnel are required to do could one day fall to drones. Remotely controlled systems – robots and drones — could drive logistics convoys, conduct mine clearance missions, extract injured soldiers from enemy fire or complete dozens of other tasks.

The improvements in drone technology and the reduction in the cost of such systems, presents states with a wide range of opportunities, both for profit through arms industry sales and for improvements in the capabilities of their armed forces. Just as prevalent is the rise of threats that UVs will pose to civilians and their governments from terrorist organizations. Israel, with neighbors like Hizbullah and Hamas; and with military and arms manufacturers heavily involved in drone technology, is at the center of this equation.