The Iranian Drone Threat

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Iran’s Provision of UCAVs to Proxies

The Iranian UCAV threat is compounded by Iran’s record of providing UCAV technologies to its proxies, most notably Hezbollah, the Houthis, Hamas, and Iran-backed Iraqi Shi’a militias. Until recent years, military aircraft were limited to nations with the resources to develop, fly, and maintain fighter jets. With the advent of cheap modern drones, and drone bodies converted to weapons, non-state actors are now able to field aerial attack capabilities as well. UCAVs offer many advantages to non-state actors who lack the money and infrastructure to field a conventional air force; essentially, drones provide an instant air force for a fraction of the cost. Iran’s proxies’ UCAVs act as a force multiplier for Iran, sowing terror against Iran’s adversaries in pursuit of Iranian foreign policy objectives while offering Tehran a degree of plausible deniability as to their culpability.

Iran has kept its most advanced technology, UCAVs with integrated attack capabilities requiring drone operators on the ground, largely to itself with the exception of Hezbollah. It has provided less sophisticated drones, most frequently the Ababil-T, to its proxies, as these drones are cheap, disposable, easy to assemble, easy to train militias on their use, and are preprogrammed for attacks by plugging in GPS coordinates, negating the need for trained ground operators. Further, they are slower-flying and give off less radar signature than more advanced drones, making them harder to detect and allowing their operators to slip through weaknesses in air defense systems. Iran’s proxies have deployed drones to surveil and attack adversaries on numerous occasions already, and the threat to U.S. allies and interests continues to grow as advances in commercially available drone technology become more accessible, further leveling the playing field.

Hezbollah

As Iran’s principal proxy, Tehran has been the primary source of funding, arming, and training Lebanese Hezbollah since the group’s inception. While Hezbollah is the most heavily armed and technically capable sub-state actor in the world, its conventional capabilities still are no match for Israel. Hezbollah has thus relied heavily on psychological warfare designed to terrorize Israeli civilians as part of its military doctrine to bridge the gap. Most infamously, the Iran-backed terror group indiscriminately lobbed up to 160 Katyusha rockets per day at Israeli population centers during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. Today, the group reportedly has between 100,000 and 150,000 missiles and rockets, many more advanced and with longer ranges than the projectiles it utilized in 2006, and all of Israel is now within its range. Hezbollah has also been working to acquire GPS-enabled precision-guided missiles to improve the accuracy of its arsenal.

Drones are another element of Hezbollah’s psychological warfare toolkit that have been employed by the group on numerous occasions since 2004 to terrorize Israel. Iran has willingly shared its drone technology with Hezbollah, as the group’s south Lebanon stronghold gives it the advantage of geographical proximity to Israel and lends plausible deniability as to Iran’s culpability. While its drones have not caused physical damage inside Israel, every incursion into Israeli airspace represents a propaganda victory for Hezbollah, allowing the group to claim it can challenge Israel’s unrivaled air superiority. Hezbollah’s drone infiltrations can also cause Israelis to lose faith in the government’s ability to completely control the country’s airspace and cast doubt on the efficacy of Israel’s air defenses, which are tasked with defending against an array of rocket, missile, and drone threats posed by Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and ISIS in the Sinai. In recent years, Hezbollah has also increasingly used drones in the Syrian civil war for surveillance and attacks against opposition groups and ISIS, helping the group to continuously improve and refine its drone capabilities.

Hezbollah’s first recorded drone use occurred in November 2004 when it dispatched a small reconnaissance UAV that flew from southern Lebanon along Israel’s Mediterranean coast to Nahariya, a coastal city 9.6 km. from the Lebanese border. The drone then hovered above Nahariya at a low altitude for about twenty minutes before returning to Lebanon overflying the Mediterranean Sea. The drone crashed in the sea where it was retrieved by Lebanese fishermen and handed over to Hezbollah operatives. The drone incursion was the first recorded instance of a non-state actor using UAVs against a state power and set the precedent for Hezbollah’s emergence as the UAV leader among sub-state armed groups.

The UAV type Hezbollah used in its drone incursion was referred to by Hezbollah as a Mirsad-1. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah denied Iranian assistance despite evidence to the contrary, likely in a bid to shield his Iranian patron from added international and Israeli pressure. The Arabic name Hezbollah gave the drone belied its Iranian origins. Some analysts believe the Mirsad-1 was actually an Iranian Mohajer-4 while others believe it is the Ababil-T, the twin tailed variant of the Ababil-2. Based on claims by Nasrallah that the drone could be armed with 40-50 kg. of explosives, it is more likely the Mirsad-1 than the Ababil-T, a UCAV that has also been frequently used by the Houthis in Yemen for kamikaze-style attacks.

U.S. and Israeli intelligence alleged that Iran provided Hezbollah with its UAVs, most likely disassembling them, flying them in cargo planes loaded with weaponry over Iraqi airspace to Syria, where they would be trucked to Lebanon and reassembled by Hezbollah operatives. According to contemporaneous reporting, a senior IRGC member confirmed that Iran had supplied eight UAVs to Hezbollah in August 2003 and that the IRGC trained members of Hezbollah’s “technology warfare” unit in operating the drones. Haaretz further reported that Iranian military personnel were present at a Hezbollah command center during the Mirsad’s inaugural flight, and that around 30 Hezbollah operatives had received training in drone operation at an IRGC drone base near Isfahan. 

The drone incursion represented a propaganda victory for Hezbollah, which broadcast a 20-second clip of the twin-tailed UAV on its TV station, Al-Manar. Based on Hezbollah’s statements surrounding the Mirsad-1 flight, it is clear that the group’s intentions were to humiliate and strike fear in Israel while holding themselves up as capable defenders of Lebanese sovereignty against Israeli aggression. This stance is ironic given that Hezbollah is a militia subservient to Iran whose ongoing refusal to disarm undermines the Lebanese government’s monopoly on the use of force and has plunged the country into conflict on several occasions.

Regardless, Hezbollah framed the Mirsad-1 flight as an appropriate act of resistance to Israel’s frequent overflights of Lebanese territory, stating, “This qualitative and new achievement by the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon comes as part of a natural response to the Zionist enemy's repeated and permanent violations of Lebanese airspace.” The Lebanese government backed Hezbollah’s operation as no other steps, including appeals to the U.N., had curtailed Israel’s incursions. The U.N. responded by condemning both the Hezbollah drone flight and Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace.

Following the incursion, Hezbollah warned, “Starting today, we will send our planes as we please.” The groups commander in southern Lebanon proclaimed, “The Israelis are living in a state of shock.” At a rally shortly after the operation, Nasrallah boasted, “You can load the Mirsad plane with a quantity of explosive ranging from 40 to 50 kilos and send it to its target. Do you want a power plant, water plant, military base? Anything!"

Hezbollah followed up the November 2004 Mirsad-1 incursion with a repeat reconnaissance mission into Israeli territory in April 2005. In the second flight, a Mirsad-1 eluded Israeli radar and flew over Israeli towns in the Western Galilee unmolested for nine minutes before returning safely back to Lebanon. The UAV, equipped with cameras, was able to deliver footage of its journey taken inside Israel back to Hezbollah. The IDF reportedly scrambled jets in response but failed to intercept the UAV. While the military utility of Hezbollah’s early drone forays was negligible, surveillance footage from drone overflights presumably would be able to help Hezbollah enhance its targeting capabilities in future conflicts with Israel, enhancing the accuracy and lethality of its rocket arsenal.

The two Mirsad-1 incursions caught Israeli intelligence by surprise and served to highlight a flaw in Israel’s air defenses at the time. Although Israel had expensive, elaborate, and overlapping air defense systems, their focus was oriented toward detecting high-flying, fast-moving fighter jets and projectiles. Hezbollah’s slow, low-altitude drones had less radar signature than the threats Israel’s air defenses were designed to monitor against, and were effectively able to slip through undetected due to ground clutter, glare, and environmental conditions.

During the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, Hezbollah attempted at least three drone incursions into Israel with Mirsad-1s, and at least one of the drones was reported to be armed with explosives and metal shrapnel in order to create carnage on the ground. Prior to the war, Israel assessed that Hezbollah had received at least 12 Mirsad-1s from Iran. Beyond delivering its Hezbollah client UAVs, Israeli intelligence officials asserted that approximately 100 Iranian advisers worked with Hezbollah during the conflict and “created a Hezbollah command center for targeting and controlling missile fire with advanced command and control assets and links to UAVs.” Israel successfully tracked and intercepted all three drones, indicating it had rapidly improved upon its air defense capabilities.

On the evening of August 7, 2006 Israeli Air Force air defense radars detected a Hezbollah Mirsad-1 immediately after it was launched from southern Lebanon. The drone crossed the international border and headed south along the Mediterranean coast toward central Israel. When the drone reached the city of Acre along the Bay of Haifa, an IAF Lockheed Martin F-16C engaged it 10 km. offshore, shooting it down with a Rafael Python 5 air-to-air missile, the first known operational kill for the missile. Based on wreckage of the UAV salvaged by Israel, it was not found to be armed with explosives, although it plausibly may have been. One of the UAV’s tails was emblazoned with a Hezbollah decal with the English words “Islamic Resistance” on the insignia. The night time flight indicated that Hezbollah had upgraded the UAV with infrared sensor capabilities.

A week after that incident, Hezbollah launched two more Mirsad-1s that were again intercepted by Israel. One of the UAVs was downed over Lebanon and crashed near the city of Tyre. The other infiltrated into Israel and was shot down over Kibbutz Cabri in the Western Galilee. Some 30 kg. of explosives and metal shrapnel was discovered in the wreckage of the UAV downed in Israel, indicating Hezbollah’s intention to use it for a kamikaze attack.

After the 2006 war, reported Hezbollah drone activity abruptly stopped but during the intervening period, Iran continued evolving its UCAV capabilities. On October 6, 2012, the anniversary of the surprise attacks that heralded the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Hezbollah launched its most daring drone incursion to date, penetrating deeper into Israel than ever before and transmitting images of sensitive military sites. The relative sophistication of the October 2012 incident compared with the previous drone incursions underscored that Iran was sharing its technological advances with Hezbollah and that the group’s capabilities in the UAV sector have grown in tandem with Tehran’s.

On October 6, 2012, Hezbollah militants, reportedly acting subordinate to IRGC technicians on the ground in southern Lebanon, launched an unarmed surveillance drone that flew over the Mediterranean as far south as the Gaza Strip before swooping inland, overflying Gaza, and crossing into Israeli territory. Based on the UAVs flight path, it was believed to be heading for the Dimona nuclear facility, one of the most sensitive and protected sites in Israel reputed to be home to its undeclared nuclear weapons arsenal. In all, the drone penetrated 140 miles into Israel from the Lebanese border, flying for 35 miles over Israeli airspace before an IAF F-16 shot it down 20 miles from the Dimona nuclear facility. It was unclear whether the drone was operated using a pre-set flight plan or piloted remotely, which would mark an upgrade in the capabilities of Iranian drone technology.

The drone’s incursion was widely perceived as a security debacle for Israel and a propaganda boon for Hezbollah and its Iranian patron, which naturally sought to exaggerate the military significance of the incident. Further adding to Israel’s black eye, its first attempt to intercept the UAV using a Python IV air-to-air missile fired from an F-16 missed its target. According to military aviation blog The Aviationist, “the Python is considered as one of the most advanced missiles in the world, with superior performance and maneuverability.” The failure to hit a slow moving target that Israel had been tracking for minutes represented a first of its kind misfire for Israel.

Hezbollah claimed to have transmitted images of Israel’s preparations for a joint military drill with the U.S., ballistic missile sites, airfields, and even of the Dimona nuclear facility, although this claim was dubious. According to an Iranian lawmaker, the drone “transmitted” pictures of “forbidden sites” that were now in Iranian possession. Hezbollah claimed on Al-Manar, which broadcast an animated simulation of the drone flight, that the drone flew 320 km. (200 miles) in total and went undetected by Israeli radar over the Mediterranean and Gaza.

Israeli military officials disputed many of Hezbollah and Iran’s boasts. The IAF reportedly tracked the drone along its route over the sea before shooting it down within Israel when it flew over an unpopulated area, casting doubt upon Hezbollah’s claims to have evaded Israeli radar and air defense systems. However, the truth of the matter is murky, as another anonymous Israeli defense source admitted that Israel struggled to detect the drone due to “unfamiliar stealth elements.” While Iran and Hezbollah claimed the drone transmitted photos of sensitive military sites and preparations, in actuality they likely did not glean any intelligence of value from the drone flight. According to the former head of Israel’s military drone unit, “As far as I understand, this drone could not have collected intelligence that could not be obtained through Google Earth or other methods that are simpler and more easily accessible. ” Israel assessed that the drone was technologically primitive and not actually capable of transmitting real-time imagery during its flight, as it would have to relay the data through a satellite, a capability it is not believed to possess.

Regardless, the psychological value of the drone incursion for Hezbollah and Iran was more significant than the intelligence value of the operation, or the cost of the lost drone. Iran had proved that it could plausibly imperil the Dimona nuclear reactor, to say nothing of other critical infrastructure throughout the country, with UAVs should Israel launch an attack against Iran’s nuclear program, compounding the threat posed by Hezbollah’s missile arsenal. The incursion also proved that Iran’s drone program had made a technological breakthrough, flying for a longer distance than previously demonstrated. The distance the UAV flew on its mission, over 300 km., was enough to classify the drone as a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV.

Hezbollah referred to the drone it used in the operation as the Ayoub, saying it was named to honor both an Islamic prophet and one of the group’s martyrs, Hussein Ayoub. Hezbollah’s October 2012 drone incursion came one month after Iran publicly unveiled the Shahed-129 for the first time. Analysts concluded that the Ayoub likely was the Shahed-129, the only drone Iran would have had at the time capable of such a long flight. While Iran claimed the Shahed-129 was capable of being armed from its inception, the drone used in the incursion was not armed. This fact does not preclude the possibility that the drone in use was a Shahed-129, as the first recorded instance of the Shahed-129 fulfilling its combat potential was not until October 2015 in Syria. In August 2018, a Hezbollah news outlet reported that Hezbollah maintains an open-air museum which displays its combat aircraft. One of the UAVs on display is almost certainly a Shahed-129, indicating that Hezbollah did take possession of this platform. The fact that Iran shared its technology with Hezbollah so soon after developing the Shahed-129 revealed unprecedented levels of coordination between the IRGC and Hezbollah, and demonstrated Hezbollah’s utility to Iran as an ally with geographical proximity to Israel willing to test out Tehran’s newest military hardware in operational settings.

Unlike past instances where Hezbollah sought to obfuscate Iran’s role in arming and training the group, this time, Hezbollah and Iran openly boasted of the Ayoub’s Iranian provenance. The Ayoub was “manufactured in Iran but assembled by the resistance [Hezbollah],” stated Hassan Nasrallah. This reflected shifting geopolitics of the time. With Iran under a robust international sanctions regime, it was more amenable to publicizing its role as Hezbollah’s benefactor to show that it remained a powerful force capable of confronting its adversaries, alone or through its proxies.

A Lebanese newspaper reported at the time that the UAV was found to have components made in Germany – the camera and remote control parts were manufactured by Siemens while some light metal components were manufactured by Bockstiegel. Iran allegedly procured the drone technology through a fictitious IRGC front company, demonstrating Iran’s ingenuity in circumventing sanctions.

Iran’s Defense Minister Ahmed Vahidi bragged that Hezbollah’s drone launch affirmed Iran’s military capabilities, while IRGC Commander-in-Chief Mohammad Ali Jafari claimed the incursion into Israel had helped Iran gain “strategic deterrence.” Nasrallah warned that the drone incursion was a precursor for future hostilities, stating, “Today we are uncovering a small part of our capabilities, and we shall keep many more hidden. … (Hezbollah) can reach any place we want. … This is not the first time, and it will not be the last.”

In April 2013, Israel downed another drone off the coast of Haifa that Hezbollah did not claim credit for, but was the only logical culprit. Israel successfully tracked the UAV as it overflew Lebanon, and downed it 8 km. offshore from Haifa over the Mediterranean. The motive behind the drone launch was unknown, although it may have been sent to conduct surveillance of Israeli offshore gas fields or chemical storage facilities around Haifa, or to probe the defenses of the IDF. Another possible motivation was that Hezbollah, which had escalated its involvement in Syria, wanted to signal that its top priority remained confronting Israel. Israel had in the months and weeks prior stepped up its practice of reconnaissance flights over Lebanon, claiming such flights were necessary to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring advanced weaponry in the chaos of the Syrian civil war. The April drone incident may have also been an effort by Hezbollah to respond in kind for Israel’s frequent overflights of Lebanon.

Israeli media reported in 2013 that Hezbollah had around 200 Iranian-supplied drones in its arsenal for both attack and surveillance purposes. Aside from the roughly half-dozen drone incursions into Israel since 2004, Hezbollah had little combat experience with UAVs. Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian civil war has changed that, however. The combat in Syria has had a transformative effect on Hezbollah, and the group has emerged today as a more battle-hardened, capable, and more lethally armed fighting force. This statement applies to the advances Hezbollah has made in its drone program in Syria as well.

As noted above, Iranian drones have been used extensively during the Syrian civil war, but it is not always clear whether their operators are the IRGC, Assad regime, or Hezbollah. Based on its close coordination with these actors, as well as Russia, which has also deployed drones in Syria, Hezbollah has in all likelihood played at least a contributing role in various pro-Assad forces’ drone operations and worked alongside IRGC operatives at Iran’s Syrian drone bases, learning lessons from more advanced actors in the UCAV space and thereby enhancing its own drone capabilities. This was confirmed by an anonymous Hezbollah operative, who told Middle East Eye in February 2017, “We are definitely learning a lot by working with Russians and Iranians in the Syria war and more specifically when it comes to UAVs.”

According to Nadav Pollak of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Hezbollah’s drone experience in Syria will ensure that the group’s UCAV operators are more technically proficient in operating the systems’ communications, optics, and weapons systems; that Hezbollah will be better able to coordinate UCAV operations with the activities of ground forces; and that it will be able to “use drones to improve their battlefield intelligence through better analysis and incorporating imagery intelligence with other sources (SIGINT/ELINT/OSINT).”

Hezbollah is known to have itself operated Iranian-supplied UCAV’s in Syria. IHS Jane’s reported in 2015 that Hezbollah had built a secret airbase likely intended for drone operations in Northern Lebanon ten miles west of the Syrian border. According to Jane’s, the airstrip, in mountainous terrain, possesses a 2200 foot unpaved runway that would be unusable by conventional aircraft, but suitable for drone takeoffs and landings. There is also an antenna at the site which could potentially be used to enhance the operable range of UAVs. Jane’s assessed that the mountain airbase was likely built with Iranian assistance between February 2013 and June 2014, indicating its purpose was to support Hezbollah and possibly Iranian drone operations in the Syrian conflict. Syrian battlegrounds such as Homs and Qusayr – which have seen frequent overflights of Iranian drones – are within range of the base even for short-range UAVs, like the Ababil-3. The base’s existence was a tangible demonstration of Iran and Hezbollah’s willingness to use Lebanese territory for its broader regional foreign policy objectives in Syria.

In September 2014, Hezbollah carried out its first successful drone attack against a base belonging to the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra near the northeastern Lebanese town of Arsal. Al-Nusra had expanded its operations into neighboring Lebanon after Hezbollah joined the war in mid-2013, conducting and attempting suicide bombings against civilian centers like Beirut and Hezbollah strongholds like Hermel, along Lebanon’s northeastern border with Syria. Hezbollah’s drone attack against the group came immediately after Al-Nusra carried out a suicide bombing at a border checkpoint and executed a Lebanese soldier. Hezbollah reportedly killed 23 Al-Nusra combatants in the drone attack, which was conducted in the midst of a Hezbollah ground offensive against the group’s Lebanese bases.

It was unclear from media reports what drone platform Hezbollah used in the attack and whether the operation was a kamikaze-style strike, or involved a UCAV dropping air-to-ground munitions. Based on Iran and Hezbollah’s known capabilities at the time, it was more likely to have been a kamikaze style attack involving a disposable UAV, such as the Ababil-T, laden with explosives. However, Fars News reported at the time that, “Hezbollah drones for the first time bombed the headquarters of the terrorist al-Nusra Front at Lebanon’s border with Syria” indicating that Hezbollah may have preceded Iran in using UCAVs for airstrikes against Syrian rebels.

In May 2015, Hezbollah reportedly used drones in its battle against Jabhat al-Nusra near Qalamoun, releasing aerial images of enemy positions on Al-Manar. It was unclear at the time whether the unidentified drones used were strictly for reconnaissance, or were used in attacks as well.

In August 2016, Hezbollah carried out a drone attack against rebel positions in Aleppo that had troubling implications for the future of drone warfare. Hezbollah released a video online purporting to show a commercially available quadcopter drone, which retails for only hundreds of dollars, dropping Chinese-made cluster bomblets on a rebel-held building. The commercially available drones are only capable of dropping small payloads, but the breakthroughs in commercial technology can give almost any non-state actor the ability to carry out small-scale drone attacks. The incident stoked fears that terrorist groups could someday use such drones to deliver a small CRBN [chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear] warhead.

In August 2017, Hezbollah media reported that Hezbollah was using drones against ISIS in Qalamoun that were capable of being armed with six medium-sized missiles. The drones on display appeared to be a smaller variant of the Shahed-129, likely with a shorter range as well that would make them useful for tactical strikes against enemy targets. Iran had likely delivered the small drone components to Syria, where Hezbollah technicians would put them together. A video on Al-Manar purported to show footage from one of the drones dropping unguided bombs on ISIS targets in the mountains. This incident confirmed that Hezbollah had now joined Iran in possessing drone strike capabilities.

In September 2017, the IDF shot down a Hezbollah reconnaissance drone with a Patriot missile that crossed into the demilitarized zone between the Israeli and Syrian border on the Golan Heights. The drone had taken off from Damascus International Airport and was identified and tracked by the IAF air defense control center, which made the decision to shoot it down as it crossed into the demilitarized zone. The IDF noted that Hezbollah had conducted frequent aerial surveillance of northern Israel from Syrian airspace, but on this instance came too close to the Israeli border. There was no specific intelligence threat indicating Hezbollah intended to infiltrate Israel, so the incident may have been attributable to user error.

In just over a decade, Hezbollah – with Iranian assistance – built a drone program from scratch and now has military-grade reconnaissance and attack UCAVs, as well as upgraded commercial drones. It has used its experience in the Syrian civil war to further hone and battle-test its drone capabilities, learning from Russia and Iran, and stands today as the leading non-state militia in the drone space. Hezbollah’s investment in drones and improvements in capabilities forged in Syria will in all likelihood come into play during the group’s next conflict with Israel. While Israel is a world leader in air defenses, and benefits from having a small geographical area to defend, it does not possess hermetic air defenses. Israel has shown it has the capability to defend against individual Hezbollah drones in sterile conditions, but it has not yet faced a coordinated barrage of Hezbollah missiles and drones launched simultaneously. Israel is likely to continue its policy of targeting advanced weapons transfers to Hezbollah to mitigate against the threat the group will play in the event of another war.

Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad

In addition to the threat of Iranian-made drones Israel faces on its Syrian and Lebanese borders, it faces a less significant Iranian-made drone threat from Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Hamas’s drone program has not advanced as much as Hezbollah’s due to procurement issues, as the Gaza-based group faces a naval blockade and its land borders with Egypt and Israel are sealed. Still, the group has had an active drone program dating back to at least 2012, with Iran believed to be responsible for providing components and Hezbollah and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood reportedly also assisting Hamas in the development of its UAV program.

Hamas’s relatively unsophisticated drones do not pose much of a tactical threat to Israel and have not significantly altered the balance of power between the two sides. Still, their occasional usage in operations inside Israeli airspace represents a show of strength for Hamas against a more powerful enemy with state of the art air defenses whose own combat aircraft and UAVs regularly patrol the Gaza skies. Hamas’s drones are largely intended to boost domestic support and morale for the group, demonstrating that it is capable of “resistance” against Israel. Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system has largely neutralized the threat posed by Hamas’s rockets, so Hamas’s pursuit of drone technology shows the group is resourcefully seeking other ways to infiltrate Israel and carry out attacks by air. Drones do not offer much of an advantage over rockets though in terms of operational success, as they are slow moving and typically destroyed by Israel before they can complete their mission.

In November 2012, Hamas’s nascent drone program in Gaza was dealt a setback when the IAF attacked eight Hamas drone storage facilities and “inflicted severe damage to Hamas's UAV infrastructure.” The IDF claimed it had been monitoring Hamas’s efforts to build a drone fleet for the past several months before it struck. The IAF also released surveillance footage of what it purported to be a drone test flight in Khan Younis. In the video, the drone spins out of control before takeoff, but the IDF alleged that Hamas was close to fielding functional drones that would have placed Tel Aviv, about 70 km. north of Gaza, in range. According to UAV expert Galen Wright, the drone depicted appeared physically similar to an Iranian Ababil-2 and Hamas appeared to have outfitted the model with a conventional landing gear for takeoff and recovery. Hamas reportedly was seeking drones for both reconnaissance and attack purposes.

In October 2013, Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces reportedly thwarted a Hamas terror cell near Hebron that was planning on launching explosives-laden UAVs into Israel. The cell was reported to be in the advanced planning stages of the foiled plot.

In July 2014, the Ezzeddin al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s armed wing, claimed to have manufactured and flown three different drone variants of a platform it called the Ababil-1, the A1A which was for reconnaissance missions, the A1B for attack and bomb-dropping missions, and the A1C for kamikaze missions. Based on the descriptions of the Hamas drones, the A1A is likely akin to the drone Iran calls Ababil-S, a surveillance variant of the Ababil-2. The A1C is likely akin to the Ababil-T, the twin-tail Ababil-2 variant capable of suicide missions. The backstory on the A1B is harder to deduce. Hamas released a video of an A1B in flight over the Gaza Strip, depicting what appears to be an Ababil-2 drone carrying four air-to-ground missiles mounted under its wings. According to military aviation blog The Aviationist, it is possible the missiles were mock-ups, as they appeared similar to those displayed by Iran when it unveiled the Fotros prototype the year prior. The blog further noted that it would be unlikely a drone as small as the one displayed would be capable of carrying air-to-ground missiles, as such a significant payload would typically “require larger airframes, more robust wings and engineering capabilities not believed to be in Hamas possession until today.”

During Operation Protective Edge in July 2014, Hamas used drones in a combat operation against Israel for the first time. Hamas claimed to have undertaken three drone sorties over Israeli airspace on July 14. Each Hamas sortie reportedly consisted of two drones, and the group boasted one of the sorties hovered over the Tel Aviv IDF headquarters. Only one of the claimed sorties has actually been confirmed, and Israel denied knowledge of the alleged Tel Aviv drone infiltration. According to Hamas’s since-suspended Twitter account, the group used the A1B attack variant. Hamas did not carry out any known drone strikes during the one confirmed and two unconfirmed missions, so its dubious claims that the A1B is capable of dropping bombs remained unverified. Further, Hamas admitted to losing contact with two of the “armed” drones it supposedly dispatched. The IDF downed the only confirmed drone over Ashdod, an Israeli coastal city roughly 50 km. north of the Gaza Strip, using a U.S.-supplied Patriot missile.

Three days later, Israel shot down another Hamas drone using a Patriot missile over the coastal city of Ashkelon. Hamas took credit for the drone and claimed it was dispatched to carry out an attack deep within Israel. Although its drone missions were unsuccessful, the fact that Hamas was able to infiltrate Israeli airspace on two occasions provided the group with a symbolic victory.

Following the war, Hamas stepped up its investment in UAV capabilities. In December 2014, a Hamas drone overflew a Gaza military parade meant to show the group’s armed strength to mark the 27th anniversary of its founding. Israel scrambled warplanes out of concern that the drone may have sought to infiltrate Israeli airspace, but returned the jets to their base when it became clear they did not pose a threat. During the parade, a Qassam Brigade spokesman thanked Iran for its role in arming Hamas, stating, “Thank you to all the people and the countries, first among which is the Islamic Republic of Iran which did not skimp on money, weapons and other things and provided the resistance with rockets.” It was reported at the time that Hamas had in recent weeks began using commercially-available quadcopter drones near the border with Israel, adding another dimension to the Hamas drone threat.

In September 2016, Hamas again tried to infiltrate Israel with a drone. In this instance, the IAF tracked the drone from its launch and shot it down over Gaza with an air-to-air missile fired by an F-16 when it was seen approaching Israel. Israel had previously banned all air traffic over the Gaza Strip. Following the infiltration attempt, an IDF spokesman remarked, “Hamas has been developing its drone capabilities, especially in the last two years. Today’s event proves once more that Hamas continues to invest in tools of terror and not in the needs of the people in Gaza.” A similar incident took place in February 2017, with an Israeli F-16 again shooting down a Hamas drone before it could reach Israel.

Hamas’s drone program suffered a setback in December 2016 when Mohammad al-Zoari, a Tunisian-born aviation engineer and drone specialist described by the group as a pioneer of its UAV program, was killed in the Tunisian city of Sfax. Hamas claimed al-Zoari had been a member of its armed wing for 10 years and posthumously referred to him as a commander. Hamas claimed that al-Zoari, “the martyr of Palestine, martyr of the Arab and Muslim nation, the Qassam leader, engineer and pilot” was assassinated by “Zionist treacherous hands.” Al-Zoari was affiliated in his younger years with the Tunisian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is the Palestinian branch. After government crackdowns on Islamists, he left Tunisia for Damascus in 1991 where he cultivated ties with Hezbollah and Hamas. A Lebanese newspaper alleged that al-Zoari was also influential in helping Hezbollah develop its drone program, while an associate of al-Zoari’s claimed that he served as a liaison for Hamas to the Iranian and Syrian governments – the other major players in Iran’s “resistance axis.” While not well known until his death, Al-Zoari’s ties to both Hezbollah and Hamas show a concerted linked, Iranian effort to arm its proxies with UAV capabilities.

Tunisian newspapers blamed the Mossad for the assassination, claiming the Israeli intelligence organization had tracked him for some time. A truck boxed in Zoari in his driveway as he was preparing to leave his home at which point two killers emerged and shot him twenty times at point-blank range in his car. Following his death, hackers accessed the surveillance camera of a nearby restaurant and deleted security footage of the assassination, indicating a sophisticated operation. If the Mossad was responsible for the assassination on foreign soil, it would indicate that Israel takes the threat of Hamas’s drones very seriously.

According to Haaretz, in 2018, Hamas established a dedicated air unit that operates UAVs, primarily for intelligence purposes. Another 2018 Haaretz report quoted an Israeli military official saying that Hamas was working on developing unsophisticated, commercially-available drones capable of being laden with explosives for suicide attacks. The report noted that in recent years, IDF soldiers in Gaza have witnessed an uptick in small, quadcopter style drones hovering above them.

Following these reports, Israel has faced a string of incidents involving unsophisticated armed drone infiltrations from Gaza. In May 2018, the IDF discovered an explosives-laden drone that had landed but not detonated in the northern Negev that was reportedly sent to injure soldiers patrolling the area. Ynet reported that this incident was one of three involving drones carrying explosives just in that month. In another of the instances, a drone dropped two explosive devices that landed on the front lawn of a residence in a border community, one of which detonated but failed to cause damage.

In May 2019, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another Iranian-backed terrorist group headquartered in Gaza, released footage purporting to show a drone controlled by its operators dropping small incendiary bombs on an IDF tank stationed at the Gaza border. The tank did not appear to sustain damage, but the incident indicated that another Iran-backed force in Gaza has been experimenting with commercially-available drone technology and has gained rudimentary drone attack capabilities. It is unclear whether Iran had a direct hand in the terrorist group’s efforts to smuggle in drones to Gaza and convert them to weapons.

According to a January 2020 Ynet report, Hamas also used a weaponized drone against the IDF for the first time in May 2019. Hamas had apparently recovered a small, multi-rotor drone used by the IDF that fell in the Gaza Strip prior to the incident. Hamas engineers repaired the drone, took control of its systems, and upgraded it, attaching an explosive from a rocket-propelled grenade launcher to the drone. In May 2019, during the course of skirmishes with the IDF, Hamas launched the drone into Israeli territory, approached a military base, spotted an IDF tank, and dropped a grenade from a height of 100 meters. The grenade failed to detonate and the IDF subsequently shot down the drone.

In July 2019, the IDF shot down a drone that crossed into Israel from Gaza and headed toward towns near the border. In September 2019, a Hamas drone dropped an explosive that lightly damaged an Israeli military vehicle by the Gaza border fence. In October 2019, the IDF downed yet another drone that crossed into Israel from Gaza.

In May 2020, the IDF warned Hamas to stop cross-border drone flights into Israel from Gaza. The warning came in response to several alleged recent drone flights, believed to be conducted by Palestinian Islamic Jihad. As the ruling authority in Gaza, Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks emanating from the territory.

Taken together, the uptick in drone incursions, some armed, shows that armed groups in Gaza remain determined to attack Israel, whose air defenses and anti-tunnel technology have neutralized much of their capabilities to inflict harm. Continued incursions and subsequent Israeli reprisals increase the risk of future conflict with Israel. Drones, especially commercially-available models, are relatively easy for Hamas to smuggle, as they are small and whole drones or their components can be concealed in shipments of toys to Gaza, or in the luggage of people entering the Strip. According to data from the Overland Crossings Authority at the Defense Ministry, Israel has seized hundreds of full drones or drone parts at the border crossings it controls. No similar data exists for Egypt’s border crossing. In all likelihood, many drones and drone parts slip in undetected, where they make their way to Hamas workshops to be reassembled and possibly outfitted for military purposes.

In recent years, Hamas and Hezbollah have put aside differences over the Syrian civil war and increased their cooperation. In the event of future hostilities between Israel and one of these parties, it is likely the other will join the fray, and that other Iranian proxy militias may get involved as well. On their own, Hamas’s drone capabilities do not significantly threaten Israel. But in a wider conflict, Israel may face the prospect of combined drone and rocket attacks on multiple fronts from both Hamas and Hezbollah. Suicide drones could potentially be marshalled to take out air defense batteries, as the Yemeni Houthis have demonstrated in attacks on Saudi Arabia. While Israel retains a qualitative military edge over its adversaries, Hamas and Hezbollah’s missiles and drones used in coordination could possibly inflict significant damage within Israel, and at the least would force Israel to spend exorbitantly to mitigate the threat. Drone interceptions involving scrambling fighter jets or surface-to-air missiles are highly costly, especially relative to the cost of Israel’s adversaries’ drones. For that reason, Israel is pursuing more cost-effective counter-drone technologies involving radio jammers, lasers, and even high-pressure water guns.

Iraqi Shi’a Militias

The rapid fall of Mosul and rise of ISIS in Iraq in 2014 paved the way for Iran to provide UAVs to some of the Iraqi Shia militias it backed in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), including Kata’ib Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, which have been sanctioned by the U.S. government. Iran’s provision of UAVs to its proxies serves to amplify its military and political influence in Iraq. There have not been many open-source reports of Iraqi Shi’a militias using Iran-supplied drones, but it appears, with one notable exception, that the militias’ sporadic usage of drones was primarily centered on reconnaissance against ISIS.

IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani exploited the ISIS crisis to ramp up exports of military hardware to Iran-backed forces, who began de facto working alongside the American forces they previously fought against in the battle against the Islamic State. During this period, images posted on social media taken by members of Iran-backed militias, as well as interviews with militia members, indicated an Iranian effort to arm its militias with surveillance drones.

In May 2015, the Badr Organization published photos of what appeared to be an Oghab-1, a small, portable tactical reconnaissance drone manufactured by an Iranian aerospace company, Farnas Pasagard. In an interview with Reuters, a senior Badr Organization official detailed how Iranian military advisors had helped the PMF eclipse the power and influence of the Iraqi army, trained for years by the U.S. military, by providing training in drone usage and signals intelligence. According to the official, “The U.S. stayed all these years with the Iraqi army and never taught them to use drones or how to operate a very sophisticated communication network, or how to intercept the enemy’s communication. The Hashid Shaabi (PMF), with the help of (Iranian) advisers, now knows how to operate and manufacture drones.” 

Iran has reportedly provided several of its proxies with the Yasir, a reverse-engineered Iranian copy of the Boeing ScanEagle unveiled in September 2013 with ISR and targeting functionality. Iran likely provided access to this platform to its proxies to test its battlefield utility to gauge whether it could be trusted for use on a wider scale by Iranian forces. The former commander of Jund al-Imam Ali appeared in a video with the Yasir in August 2015. A press secretary for Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba confirmed in 2017 that his group had received at least six Yasir variants from Iran. In December 2014, Iranian media displayed pictures of Yasirs with the militia’s insignia on them, noting the group had used them on the Al-Ishaqi front lines within Salah ad Din Governorate of Iraq.

Iran has also outfitted Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) – the most powerful and loyal to Iran militia in Iraq, whose leader, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes was Qassem Soleimani’s right-hand man in Iraq and was killed alongside Soleimani on January 3, 2020 – with drones. Video footage released in 2015 by KH indicates that Iran has provided the group with the Ababil-3, referred to by the group as the Basir-1, which it used to surveil ISIS. According to interviews with KH fighters, the group used Iran-supplied drones in the Third Battle of Fallujah. “The Iranian drones allow us to distinguish between civilian areas and ISIS areas. The drones are only deployed on occasion. When we don’t need them for specific objectives, the engineers keep them in storage for the sake of secrecy,” said a militiaman in al-Saqlawiyah. A contractor for the Iraqi Ministry of Interior noted that KH had the most advanced drones in Iraq, asking “Can the Americans please give us drones like that?”

KH reportedly houses most of its drones at Camp Speicher, an Iraqi Air Force academy and former U.S. military base outside Tikrit where ISIS massacred over 1500 non-Sunni Iraqi soldiers in June 2014. After the recapture of Tikrit, led by PMF forces operating out of Camp Speicher in April 2015, KH reportedly began using the air bases for two 3 km. runways for its drone operations.

Iranian UAVs in the hands of its proxy militias was not judged to be a threat during the period where the fight against ISIS was paramount. However, the potential that these and other weapons would eventually be commandeered in the fight against the U.S.’s presence and interests in the region remained extant. In May 2019, that danger appeared to come to fruition.

The month prior, the U.S. designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and declined to reissue waivers allowing eight select countries to continue importing Iranian oil, ratcheting up tensions with Iran as the country faced cascading economic pressures and saw no hope for the resumption of European trade and investment on the horizon. The situation placed Iran at a crossroads; it could either swallow its pride and return to the negotiating table having ceded its leverage in order to sue for sanctions relief, or it could pursue a path of stepped up aggression in the hopes that imposing costs on the U.S. and its allies would force the U.S. into negotiations on Iran’s terms. Iran chose the latter path.

According to intelligence reports, Soleimani met with Iraqi Shia militia leaders and told them to prepare for a proxy war against the U.S. in late April 2019. The U.S. responded by dispatching an aircraft carrier and bomber task force to the Persian Gulf to send the message to Iran that attacks on U.S. personnel would lead to reprisals against Iran. Soleimani blinked and opted against direct hostilities against U.S. forces, as Iran did not desire a full-scale conflict with the U.S. that would threaten its hard-fought military entrenchment in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Instead, Iran and its proxies instead embarked on a campaign of aggression against secondary U.S. interests, launching a spate of attacks targeting oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and Saudi infrastructure.

One of the first attacks in this campaign was a drone attack on May 14, 2019 against Saudi Aramco oil pumping stations in Al-Duwadimi, 330 km. west of Riyadh. Initially, the Yemeni Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, which ignited a fire that damaged one of the pumping stations and led Saudi Arabia to temporarily shut down a major pipeline, citing Saudi “aggression” and “genocide” in Yemen. However, a month later, the U.S. assessed that the attack had actually originated from Iraq, not Yemen, implicating Iran-backed militia forces. According to Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, based on interviews with Iraqi political and security figures, the drone attacks emanated from Jurf as-Sakr, Kata’ib Hezbollah’s stronghold on the outskirts of Baghdad. The Associated Press also reported that an Iraqi security official was told by the U.S. that the drones were launched from Jurf as-Sakr.

U.S. officials were not forthcoming about how they arrived at their assessment, but did say that the drone attacks displayed a level of sophistication previously not seen in Houthi drone attacks. An official familiar with the investigation also noted that based on the wreckage of the attacks, the drones and explosives used were different from those the Houthis had previously used in Saudi Arabia. Based on this description of wreckage at the site, it is likely that the attack was kamikaze-style. In September 2019, following the major drone and cruise missile attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais, the Saudi Ministry of Defense released slides of the wreckage from the May 14 incident for the first time showing that triangular, “delta-wing” suicide UAVs were used in both the May and September attacks.

The slide showed an image comparing the May 14 wreckage to a drone displayed at an IRGC Aerospace Force exposition in May 2014 called the Toofan (Tempest). The Toofan is a previously rarely-seen loitering munition UCAV that, according to a description in IRGC-linked Tasnim News, is small, high-speed, capable of an “undetectable launch,” has a low radar signature, and uses an optical tracker to “locate and destroy the enemy.” Tasnim continues, “This drone’s top speed is 250 km./hr. and it can fly for over an hour. It was designed from the outset for suicide missions… After several attacks from such drones, the enemy will panic.” Analysts posited that the UAVs used in the May 14th drone attack were not Toofans, but an updated, smaller design based on the Toofan’s delta-wing shape with longer range and flight endurance.

The site of the attacks was roughly 500 km. from the Iraqi border, but 800 km. from the Yemeni border, making it more feasible that the attacks originated in Iraq. Saudi Arabia’s air defenses were largely oriented toward combating the drone and missile threats emanating from Yemen, meaning a UAV launched from Iraq would have a better chance of penetrating Saudi airspace.    

Neither the Houthis nor Katai’b Hezbollah were known to have drones capable of traveling the distance required to pull off the May 14th attack. If indeed the attack was carried out by Kata’ib Hezbollah, the likeliest culprit based on the press reports of the incident, given its control over Jurf as-Sakr and role as the strongest Iran-backed Iraqi Shi’a militia, it would indicate that Iran has provided the group with UCAVs more advanced than the Ababils it was known to possess in recent years. It cannot be ruled out that IRGC operators were directly involved in the attack.

In addition to threatening Iraq’s neighbors, drones in the hands of Iran-backed militias can threaten U.S. military personnel in Iraq. Shi’a militias have launched numerous crude rocket and missile attacks at U.S. forces and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad since May 2019. Drones that were previously used for surveillance and targeting of ISIS can potentially be used by these militias to improve the accuracy of their salvos against U.S. forces, or to carry out aerial attacks themselves. According to a Reuters interview with an Iraqi security official, “they used Katyusha [rockets] and mortars in very restricted attacks against American interests in Iraq to send a message rather than trying to inflict damage. Using explosive-laden drones is very possible once we have a worsening situation between Tehran and Washington.”

Drones in the hands of Iran-backed Shi’a militias undermine the Iraqi government’s efforts to assert sovereignty over its territory and risk ensnaring Iraq in Iran’s broader conflict against the U.S. and its allies. Incidents such as the May 14, 2019 attack, in which Iran-backed militias likely used Iraqi territory to launch long-range drone attacks against a neighboring state, leaves the Iraqi government with only bad options. It can either act to rein in the militias itself and risk blowback from Iran, or risk outside actors launching kinetic reprisals against militias in Iraq in an effort to curb Tehran’s influence.

Houthis

Iran’s hegemonic ambitions extend to Yemen as well, giving the Iranian regime added strategic depth. In a similar vein to Iran’s efforts to establish forward operating bases in Syria and Lebanon from which to encircle, threaten, and provoke Israel, Yemen offers Iran a staging ground for the Houthi rebels it backs to attack key U.S. allies and Iranian adversaries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

Beginning in 2004, the Houthi rebels waged a low-level insurgency against the Sunni-dominated, internationally recognized Yemeni central government, a key U.S. counterterrorism ally. Iran and Hezbollah offered limited assistance to the Houthis since at least 2009 in the form of arms and training, with the IRGC-Quds Force organizing crude Iranian small-arms shipments that were occasionally intercepted by Yemeni and U.S. naval patrols.

In September 2014, the Houthis became a more significant player in Tehran’s regional ambitions when they exploited the weakness of Yemen’s central government and seized the capital of Sana’a without firing a shot. Former Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani remarked that the fall of Sana’a represented a “golden opportunity” for Iran. Iran’s aid to its Houthi proxies has provided a low-risk, cost-effective avenue to becoming the dominant political and military influence in Yemen. Acting in conjunction with Hezbollah, the Quds Force stepped up their efforts to arm and train the Houthi in order to rapidly enhance their military capabilities. The Quds Force stepped up illicit arms exports of increasingly sophisticated weaponry, including kamikaze aerial drones, in violation of the arms embargoes in UNSCR 2231, which proscribes Iran from buying or exporting arms, and UNSCR 2216, which bans the Houthis from importing arms.

Within four months of their takeover of Sana’a, the Houthis had toppled the central government and expanded the territory under their control south to Aden and westward to the strategic port of al-Hudaydah. In 2015, a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led Arab coalition intervened in the conflict, blunting the Houthis territorial expansion and turning the conflict into a war of static positions. Since that time, the Houthis have increasingly sought to take the fight to the Saudi and Emirati homelands – two key regional partners leading the Arab coalition against the Houthis – emulating Hezbollah’s strategy from 1992-2000 against Israel when the group launched frequent terror attacks within Israel to compel Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon. In this instance, the Houthis are seeking to compel the Saudi-led coalition to end their military campaign against the Houthis and accept the territorial status quo.

Drones have played a significant role in the Houthis efforts to sow terror against coalition targets both inside Yemen and within Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In March 2019, U.S. CENTCOM Commander Joseph Votel testified before the House Armed Services Committee, “The ballistic missile threat and armed UASs (Unmanned Aerial Systems) emanating from Yemeni territory continue to pose a significant risk, as the Houthi’s consider civil infrastructure as legitimate military targets.” The group’s frequent usage of UAVs and demonstration of long-range drone suicide attack capabilities places them in league with Hezbollah as among the world’s most active and sophisticated non-state actors in the drone space.

UAVs in the Houthis hands are not game-changing weapons, and are not enough to significantly alter the military balance of power which heavily favors the Arab coalition fighting the Houthis. However, the Houthi’s UAVs have an important psychological component, showing that the group can penetrate the territory, launch reprisals, and inflict costs against militarily superior adversaries. As was the case with its other proxies it has furnished with UAVs, Iran’s provision of UAVs to the Houthis has allowed it to rapidly field a makeshift air force with both ISR and combat capabilities. The conflict in Yemen has provided Iran a testing ground for strategies to probe and circumvent enemy air defense systems.

The Houthis reportedly began using UAVs in early 2016 for ISR purposes and soon began deploying them in an attack role as well. The full extent of the Houthi UAV program, including its links to Tehran, first came to light in early 2017. On February 10, 2017, the group’s leader, Abdel Malik al-Houthi announced that the Houthis had started manufacturing UAVs. Later that month, the Houthi’s Supreme Political Council put on an exhibition in which they displayed supposedly domestically manufactured drones built by their defense ministry.

Per Iranian media, the “Yemeni armed forces,” which is how Iran refers to the Houthi rebels, “unveiled four domestically designed and manufactured drones to collect information on the positions and movements of militiamen loyal to resigned president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, as well as Saudi troops, and carry out aerial attacks against them.” Three of the UAV systems unveiled by the Houthis, the Hudhud-1, Raqib, and Rased, were strictly surveillance drones, none of which could fly more than two hours nor had a range beyond 35 km. One of these, the Rased, was reportedly a low-cost, commercially available Skywalker X-8 drone, showing the group was inflating its drone production capabilities.

The fourth UAV, referred to as the Qasef (Striker)-1, was a combat drone with a flight endurance of two hours, an operational range of 150 km., and capable of carrying a 30 kg. payload. According to the Houthis, the Qasef-1 was “equipped with a smart system to detect, monitor, and hit the target with several types of warheads, subject to the target type.” The Qasef-1 is believed to be intended solely for kamikaze-style drone strikes. Researchers who have examined recovered Qasef-1s noted that the drones have no landing gear, but do have components for arming and initiating explosives, highlighting its role as a single-use disposable strike munition.

Both Iran and the Houthis publicly denied that the Houthis drone arsenal was provided by Tehran. Per a press statement released by the Houthis announcing the unveiling of its drone program, the group’s purported ability to manufacture drones “was achieved at the hands of a few creative Mujahideen men, bypassing various difficulties and obstacles.” The fiction of the Houthis indigenous design and manufacture of its UAVs has been exposed, however, by arms control researchers and by the U.N. Panel of Experts on Yemen.

In March 2017, Conflict Armament Research (CAR), a U.K.-based investigative organization that tracks the supply of weaponry into conflict zones, issued a report indicating that the Houthi’s Qasef-1s were provided by Tehran. According to the report, CAR researchers examined seven Houthi Qasef-1 UAVs in the possession of UAE forces, six of which were intercepted by the UAE’s Presidential Guard in Yemen’s Marib governorate and another that crash-landed by Yemen’s Aden International Airport.

CAR found that the Qasef-1 was not indigenously produced by the Houthis, but was actually “consistent with descriptions and imagery of a UAV that has been referred to as the Ababil-T.” In addition to having identical design and construction characteristics, the Qasef-1 and Ababil-T also shared identical serial number prefixes. Components within the UAV also pointed to their Iranian provenance. The Qasef-1s recovered in Yemen all had a vertical gyroscope made by an unknown manufacturer with a sticker indicating they were Model: V10. The V10 vertical gyroscopes matched the gyroscope of an Ababil-3 downed in Iraq and displayed by ISIS and, based on serial numbers, were found to have likely been manufactured in the same batch series as those found in Iraq. Additionally, UAE forces claimed that they intercepted six disassembled Qasef-1s after they transited Oman, a known overland smuggling route for the Iranian supply of weaponry to the Houthis. Taken together, CAR concluded based on the evidence that the Qasef-1 UAVs were likely imported from Iran and reassembled by the Houthis, not domestically manufactured.

The U.N. Panel of Experts (PoE) on Yemen corroborated CAR’s findings in a January 2018 report. The PoE found that, “the medium-sized Qasef-1 unmanned aerial vehicle is virtually identical in design, dimensions and capability to that of the Ababil-T, manufactured by the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries (HESA).” The PoE further found that Iran tried to conceal the funding and supply of the Qasef-1s in circumvention of the arms embargo in UNSCR 2216. According to the PoE report, “The route for the funding of one of the components used a third party broker, and an intermediary account in a third country. This is indicative of a deliberate attempt to disguise the final destination of the components. The Panel finds that, based on: (a) the design of the unmanned aerial vehicles; and (b) the tracing of component parts, the material necessary to assemble the Qasef-1 unmanned aerial vehicles, emanated from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

In interviews with UAE forces, CAR further found that Houthi forces had been using the Qasef-1 since 2016 for kamikaze attacks on Saudi and UAE MIM104 ‘Patriot’ surface-to-air missile systems, used to combat enemy missiles and aircraft. The Houthis reportedly used open-source GPS coordinates of the Patriot air defense batteries and would preprogram the Qasef-1, laden with explosive warheads, to fly into the systems’ radar sets. With the systems’ radar disabled, the Houthis would be able to launch volleys of missiles at coalition personnel and assets unhindered.

While it was not clear from the CAR report whether the Houthis had succeeded to date in disabling any coalition Patriot missile batteries, the fact that the topic was broached showed the utility to Iran’s asymmetrical proxy war strategy of arming the Houthis with kamikaze drones. The Houthis have Iran-supplied rockets and ballistic missiles in their arsenal capable of reaching Riyadh, and as a result, Saudi Arabia’s Patriot batteries near the Saudi-Yemeni border have been active since the onset of the Yemen conflict. Forcing the coalition to expend multi-million dollar Patriot missiles to defend against cheap, armed drones would represent a small victory for the Houthis, and actually taking out one of the batteries’ radar system would be a major accomplishment. While the cost of taking out Houthi drones is exorbitant, the cost of inaction could potentially be greater if missiles, or the drones themselves are able to target Saudi civilians or infrastructure unhindered. The introduction of the Qasef-1 to the Houthis served as a potent example of Iran’s plans to degrade the efficiency of high-end anti-aircraft defense systems with cheap UAVs and highlights the need for the U.S. and its allies to invest in more cost-effective counter-drone solutions.

Beginning in 2018, the Houthis began incorporating drones in sporadic cross-border attacks against Saudi and Emirati civilian and military targets. Sometimes the attacks featured just drones and other times, drones were used in conjunction with missile attacks, which have been ongoing since the onset of the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign against the Houthis.

In April 2018, Saudi Arabia reported that it thwarted multiple attempted attacks by the Houthis, including a missile targeting Riyadh and drones targeting an airport and Aramco facility in the country’s south. Saudi authorities claimed that its forces downed two Houthi drones, one targeting an Aramco oil facility in Jizan and the other targeting an airport in Abha, both near the Saudi-Yemeni border. The airport temporarily suspended all flights due to the attack, which reportedly injured two airport workers. The Houthi’s TV station announced that the Houthis had sent two Qasef-1s to disrupt Saudi air traffic and target its oil industry in response to “Saudi-American crimes against Yemenis.” On May 26, 2018, Saudi Arabia reportedly foiled another drone attack on the Abha airport.

Initially, the Houthi’s ability to carry out cross-border drone attacks was limited by the 150 km. range of the Qasef-1. However, by mid-2018, the Houthi’s developed a new family of drones, the Sammad. The Houthis began using Sammad variants for attacks beginning in mid-2018, but did not formally unveil the system until July 2019. At that time, Iran’s Press TV reported that Houthi forces had begun using the Sammad-1, a reconnaissance drone, and Sammad-3, described as a long-endurance UAV. Press TV also reported on a new, upgraded Qasef variant, known as the Qasef-2K, but it is not clear how the new Qasef differs from the Qasef-1.

In September 2019, Press TV gave further details on the specifications of the Sammad drones. The Sammad-1 is an ISR drone with a range of 500 km. Press TV reported that the previously unannounced Sammad-2 was a combat drone with an operational range of 1,300 kilometers, equipped with advanced signal jamming technology, and capable of performing tactical and stealth maneuvers. The Sammad 3 was reported to be a stealth combat drone with an operational range of 1,700 kilometers, capable of hitting the target from above or destroying the target in a kamikaze attack.

According to its January 2019 report on Yemen, the U.N. PoE said that it had inspected five drones of a new UAV model which it believed corresponded with the Houthi descriptions of the Sammad 2 or 3. The presumed Sammad 2/3s were characterized by V-shaped tail fins and a more powerful engine than the Qasef-1, and some were weaponized with 18 kg. explosive warheads mixed with ball bearings to increase their lethality. The PoE further noted that the Sammads were powered by “Chinese-made DLE 170 or the German-made 3W110i B2 engine, with a top speed of between 200 km/h and 250 km/h, the unmanned aerial vehicle may have a maximum range of between 1,200 km and 1,500 km, depending on wind conditions. It would give credence to the claims by the Houthis that they have the capability to hit targets such as Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.” The Sammad does not appear to have an existing Iranian analog drone, suggesting that the Houthis have developed some indigenous UAV design and production capabilities. CAR found in February 2020, however, that the Sammad shared components in common with other Iran-supplied UAVs and IEDs that have proliferated around the region, implying that the drone is at least partially Iranian in origin.

The first claimed Houthi usages of Sammad-2 or 3s for attack purposes came in July 2018. On July 18, 2018, Houthi media reported that Houthi drone forces had attacked an Aramco oil refinery in Riyadh with a Sammad-2, causing a fire. Aramco denied that any drone attack had taken place, but did acknowledge that there had been a fire at the Riyadh refinery due to an “operational incident.” The Houthis did not produce any evidence to corroborate an attack on the facility, indicating the incident may have been fabricated for propaganda purposes. In May 2019, however, the Wall Street Journal reported that an Aramco executive and an anonymous Gulf security official acknowledged that the Houthis had in fact attacked the refinery with a drone.

On July 26, 2018, the Houthis claimed to have attacked Abu Dhabi’s international airport in the UAE with a Sammad-3 UAV. According to a Houthi spokesman, the drone travelled 1,500 km. in order to hit its target and made clear the Houthis intention and ability to target civilian infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The UAE denied any drone attack had occurred, but did acknowledge an incident had taken place that day involving a supply vehicle. If an attack did occur, it would represent a major escalation in the Houthis UAV capabilities, as the UAE has sophisticated air defenses, including the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system.

The Houthis again released no corroborating evidence at the time, nor did any of the thousands of passengers who transit the airport daily report or film a drone attack, suggesting another Houthi fabrication. In May 2019, almost a year after the alleged attack, Houthi media posted a video purporting to show the UAV attack on the Abu Dhabi airport, the first reputed footage of the incident. In August and September of 2018, the Houthis claimed to have attacked Dubai’s international airport with Sammad 3s, but in both instances, the UAE denied any attack had taken place and the Houthis released no corroborating evidence.

On July 24, 2018, UAE forces in Yemen reportedly intercepted two Houthi drones armed with explosives that were sent to target troops affiliated with the internationally-recognized Hadi government. According to the UAE state media service, “One was headed towards the district of Al Mokha and the second towards densely populated cities in the district of Al Khokha in the Hodeidah province.” The incident underscored that the Houthis had quietly been undertaking ongoing drone operations inside Yemen in addition to the headline-grabbing cross-border drone attacks it has sporadically attempted. According to Khalil Dewan of the investigative journalism outlet Bellingcat, the Houthis claimed on July 26, 2018 to have executed at least 16 drone attacks within Yemen targeting coalition and pro-Hadi forces.

In January 2019, the Houthis flew an explosives-laden drone, claimed by the Houthis to be the Qasef-2K, into a coalition military parade outside the southern port city of Aden, targeting high-ranking military officials of the internationally-recognized government and killing at least six. One of those killed in the strike was Major-General Mohammad Saleh Tamah, chief of the Yemeni army’s military intelligence unit. The Houthis immediately claimed the attack, declaring they targeted “mercenaries and invaders” and left “dozens of dead and wounded.” Footage of the drone strike showed that the UAV directly targeted a podium where security officials were seated listening to speeches. The buzz of a drone can be heard seconds before a large explosion, followed by a commotion. The drone attack demonstrated sophisticated planning by the Houthis, who had a limited window to strike the dais while it was filled with high-value targets. The strike is believed to have been the first instance of a non-state actor using UAVs to assassinate a government official.

When U.S.-Iranian tensions ratcheted up after the April 2019 designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization, the Houthis took on an expanded role in Iran’s regional destabilization efforts, stepping up its drone and missile attacks against the Saudi-led coalition and frequently targeting civilian and military infrastructure within Saudi Arabia. The Houthis warned at the time that they had identified 300 coalition military targets that they planned to launch operations against. The following is a timeline of reported Houthi drone attacks since that time, primarily targeting airports, cities, and other civilian infrastructure.

  • April 2, 2019: The Saudi-led coalition intercepted two Houthi drones it claimed were targeting the Saudi city of Khamis Mushait. Five civilians were reportedly injured by falling debris from the drone interception.
  • April 8, 2019: The coalition intercepted a Houthi drone launched toward the city of Asir.
  • May 14, 2019: The Houthis claimed credit for a drone attack targeting two Aramco pumping stations. The attack was judged by the U.S. to have emanated from Iraq, however. The Houthis’ willingness to shoulder the blame for the attack demonstrated their loyalty to Iran and willingness to shield Iran and its other proxies from possible reprisals for their malign activities.
  • May 21, 2019: The Houthis claimed via their TV network to have launched a drone attack using a Qasef-2K targeting an arms depot at Saudi Arabia’s Najran airport, a civilian airport near the Saudi-Yemeni border that houses a military base as well. A coalition spokesman alleged that the Houthis targeted a civilian site in Najran.
  • June 11, 2019: The Houthis claimed to have launched two Qasef-2K drones targeting the city of Khamis Mushait. The coalition reported that its soldiers intercepted the drones.
  • June 13, 2019: Saudi Arabia claimed that its air defenses shot down five Houthi drones targeting the Abha airport and the city of Khamis Mushait.
  • June 15, 2019: The Houthis claimed to have carried out drone strikes on a control room at Jizan airport and a fuel station at Abha airport. The coalition acknowledged intercepting a Houthi drone approaching Abha. Following the purported attacks, a Houthi spokesman declared, “The two airports are now out of service. We promise the Saudi regime more painful days as long as the aggression and siege continue on our country.”
  • June 20, 2019: Saudi Arabia claimed that its air defenses shot down a “hostile drone” launched by the Houthis toward Jizan.
  • June 23, 2019: Saudi Arabia alleged that the Houthis launched a drone attack against the Abha airport 200 km. north of the Yemeni border, killing one and wounding 21.
  • June 30, 2019: The Houthis claimed to have launched two Qasef-2k drones targeting airports in the Saudi cities of Abha and Jizan. Saudi Arabia claimed to have intercepted the drones, and reported that no damage or casualties were sustained.
  • July 2, 2019: The Houthis claimed credit for a drone attack targeting the Abha airport that wounded eight Saudi nationals and one Indian national. In response, a coalition spokesman said, "The terrorist Houthi militia is continuously and immorally targeting civilians. The continuation of these terror attacks in an advanced manner proves the Iranian regime's involvement in supporting the terrorist Houthi militia."
  • July 15, 2019: The Saudi-led coalition reported that it had intercepted three Houthi drones launched toward Jizan and Abha. The Houthis were allegedly targeting the King Khalid air base.
  • July 16, 2019: The Houthis claimed to have launched a drone targeting the Jizan airport and that the attack disrupted airport operations. The coalition reported that its forces intercepted and downed a drone headed toward civilian targets in Jizan.
  • August 5, 2019: The Houthis claimed to have launched drone attacks targeting the King Khalid Air Base and civilian airports in Abha and Najran. According to the Houthis, the attack on Abha hit its target, and air traffic was disrupted at both civilian airports. However, the coalition claimed that it intercepted the drones before they reached the airports.
  • August 17, 2019: The Houthis claimed to have carried out a complex, long-range drone attack targeting Aramco’s Shaybah natural gas liquefaction facility over 1000 km. away from Yemen’s northern border. A Houthi military spokesman claimed that the group used ten drones, alleged by Saudi Arabia to be “booby-trapped,” in the attack. The attack reportedly sparked a fire but did not cause casualties or disrupt production. The Saudi energy minister denounced the attacks, which he said were “not only aimed at Saudi Arabia but also against the global economy.”
  • August 26, 2019: The Houthis claimed to have launched an armed drone attack targeting a military site in Riyadh, but Saudi Arabia denied any attack had taken place.
  • September 14, 2019: The Houthis initially claimed credit for the coordinated drone and cruise missile attacks on Aramco’s Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities. The U.S. and U.N. have rejected the Houthis claims, with the U.S. attributing direct responsibility for the attacks on Iran.
  • March 27, 2020: The coalition reported that it intercepted and destroyed Houthi UAVs launched toward civilian targets in Abha and Khamis Mushait.
  • March 28, 2020: The Houthis claimed to have attacked “sensitive” sites in Riyadh with Zulfiqar ballistic missiles and Sammad-3 UAVs. They additionally claimed to have carried out rocket and drone attacks on Saudi targets closer to the Yemeni border in Jizan, Najran and Asir.
  • May 27, 2020: The coalition reported that it intercepted and destroyed Houthi UAVs launched at civilian targets in Najran.
  • June 1, 2020: The coalition reported that it intercepted and destroyed two Houthi UAVs launched at civilian targets in Khamis Mushait. 

Having lacked any drones as recently as 2015, the Houthis rapidly amassed a drone arsenal, introduced new systems capable of long-range attacks, and stand today as one of the world’s most active and adept non-state actors in terms of UCAV operations. While the Houthis have gained some domestic drone manufacturing capabilities, their rapid ascent could not have been achieved without Iranian efforts to smuggle drones and components to the Houthis, nor without Quds Force and Hezbollah training. In November 2019, the U.S. seized an Iranian shipment of weaponry, including components matching those found in Qasef and Sammad drones, indicating Iran’s efforts to proliferate drones to the Houthis are ongoing. The U.S. similarly interdicted another weapons shipment in February 2020. The U.N. secretary general found in June 2020 that both shipments were Iranian in origin and may have been transferred “in a manner inconsistent” with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231.

Due to Iran’s backing, the Houthis pose a persistent drone threat to Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent, the UAE. Even with large investments in advanced air defenses, the Houthis have managed, using a high volume of attempted drone attacks, to cause damage to civilian and military infrastructure with pinpoint accuracy on numerous occasions with their UAVs. Drones form an integral part of the Houthi’s military posture toward the Saudi-led coalition, and their utility goes beyond mere harassment. The Houthi’s frequent drone attacks are intended to compel the Arab coalition from continuing its military campaign against the Houthis and accept the Houthi’s territorial gains. They are important psychological tools for the Houthis, which focus on drone attacks significantly in their production of propaganda. Drones demonstrate that the Houthis, formerly considered to be a localized, tribal insurgency have evolved into an organized militia capable of defying regional powers.