Cheap Chinese drones costing just a few thousand shekels each caused Israel last Saturday morning strategic damage that allowed Hamas to disable Israeli surveillance and hit the forces deployed on the border.
A few simple commercial drones carried out photography missions, dropped grenades and heavy bombs on outposts and along the Gaza border and disabled part of the IDF's surveillance system, without disturbing the army's complacency, at the start of the attack.
These cheap drones, mostly manufactured by Chinese companies DJI and Autel, have for more than a year changed the battlefield in Ukraine, were used in the attacks on the Aramco oil fields in Saudi Arabia and closed down London's Gatwick airport several years ago, and it now seems that Israel has been given a lesson in their massive use in a military operation by the Gaza terrorist groups.
This is not the first time that the drone threat has disrupted Israel's skies. Earlier this year in May, three incidents were recorded of commercial drones entering Israeli airspace including a DJI-made drone from Lebanon hovering above the Zarit base.
At about the same time there were at least two criminal incidents. In one of them a drone carried about seven kilograms of explosives to an apartment building in Netanya in an attempt to assassinate a major underworld figure. Fortunately, the drone crashed because of the weight and broke up without causing any major damage.
Defense and security consultant Yair Ansbacher, who specializes in analyzing theaters of war, explains that commercial drones have many advantages for those operating them. He says, "They are cheap, available on the market, can be launched from any place and flown them from any place within a few moments and accurately, without almost any previous experience. By the way it is also possible to to receive quality, real-time video images."
Ukraine: the most extensive military use
Unlike drones or unmanned aerial vehicles, which have a larger body and can therefore be detected by military radar, these drones are small, very light and difficult to locate. "They can be turned into a sort of smart or semi-smart weapon through simple improvisation," explains Ansbacher. For this reason, according to him, terrorist organizations in the Middle East, such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have established a permanent operational arm that uses drones.
The war between Russia and Ukraine, which broke out a year and a half ago, has become the largest battlefield in scope so far that has used drones to blow up hundreds of military vehicles and tanks by throwing grenades through the shelf, and killing and injuring thousands of soldiers.
In some arenas, this use has even helped to dramatically change the situation. Using two types of drones: commercial DJI drones, which usually drop grenades or are even equipped with hives of bombs; and crash drones, which fly at high speeds, usually 120-150 kilometers per hour, and crash into a military vehicle or an infantry unit. Here, the Russians use self-made Lancet drones, or the Iranian-made Shahad, while the Ukrainians use self-made drones, as well as Chinese-made FPV drones.
"The numbers and scale of drone use in the Middle East do not come close to what is happening in Ukraine," says Ansbacher. "This is one of the reasons why Hamas was unable to obtain a larger number of drones. Many of them, are being used on both sides, in the Russia-Ukraine war.
"While the US suffers from a shortage of drones, China, which manufactures them, enjoys control of the market. The Chinese control (DJI alone has a 70% market share) keeps Western awake, because of the suspicion that Chinese intelligence gathers extensive information through them. In the US security forces, for example, the use of DJI drones is prohibited.
Despite the effect the drones produce, Ansbacher explains that it is not a strategic tool, but only a tactical one. "They are effective in surprise attacks, but do not change the course of the fighting," he says. "During combat, their effect is quite similar to a mortar shell. It comes out of the sky and lands in the field and we have known this effect for a long time. The drone is quieter, so it also has a psychological effect."
Despite the images coming from Ukraine, where many tanks are destroyed using grenades dropped from drones, Ansbacher explains that the actual damage to armored vehicles is not great if the soldiers observe the rules used in the army.
"In a situation where the tank hatch is closed, it cannot be destroyed by a drone by dropping a charge. What you see is the dropping of incendiary bombs that cause psychological pressure in the crew to make them abandon the tank," he says.
Israeli technological solutions are used worldwide
At this stage, it is not clear why the IDF did not thwart the launch of the drones into Israel. As far as is known, Israel has a military capability that allows it to deal with commercial drones, and the world is already dealing with the phenomenon through technological solutions, some of which are being developed by Israeli companies.
The leading Israeli company is D Fend Solutions, which has raised $30 million to develop electronic counter-drone solutions that allow armies and security forces, energy facilities, and airports to remotely locate drones, halt their operation and take control of them. The US Defense Department, for example, is one of D Fend's biggest customers and it has also announced that the Israeli company's solution is the main solution that it is adopting.
Israel Aerospace Industries is marketing the Drone Guard system, whicvh helps the military to detect drones, disrupt their operations and allow ground forces to shoot them down with light weapons. This is rivalled by several foreign companies including Dedrone from Virginia in the US and Australian company DroneShield, which is publicly traded with a market cap of A$161 million. The Australian company has annual revenue of $6 million, which reflects how small the market is.
Drones themselves have also become an effective tool for fighting assault drones. Israeli company Xtend, for example, offers foreign security forces, including the US military, attack drones based on Racers - motorized racing drones capable of maneuvering and hitting a precise target at enormous speed.
Xtend has adapted the drones, which originally also fought against incendiary balloon and drone launches in Israel, for other combat missions, such as scanning between buildings, and equipped them with AI, so that they can cruise and carry out operations with minimal intervention by a human operators.
The next threat will not be the sending of one drone or another towards military targets, but in drone swarms, some of which will operate autonomously and attack from many sources. "There is a need for a change in strategic thinking, which will lead to a change in combat theory," says a senior defense source. "The essence of the change is to deal with masses, masses of people as well as masses of drones, and not just with individual quality aims."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 12, 2023.
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