The masked fighters in camouflage uniforms trudge across the dunes of Gaza, lugging two gray drones with wooden propellers and warheads. Loaded on metal launchers, the winged aircraft shoot into the sky, headed off to strike Israel.
The propaganda video, made public this month by Hamas in the midst of the worst fighting with Israel in years, was meant to cast the militant group as a formidable fighting force, capable of overcoming its foe’s advanced military with its own homemade technology.
But the video also served to highlight the proliferation of military drones crisscrossing the region’s skies in unprecedented numbers. They target oil facilities, militant hideouts, Israeli and Palestinian territory and even U.S. bases in the region.
Some are shot down, but they are cheap to build and so many are in the air that some reach their targets, sometimes with devastating results.
Many unmanned aircraft or their components can be linked back to Iran, U.S. officials say, a worrying threat from Washington’s longtime adversary that is forcing Pentagon planners to reconsider long-standing strategies for defending allies and its forces in the region.
“These small- and medium-sized [drones] present a new and complex threat to our forces and those of our partners and allies,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, told Congress last month. “For the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority.”
The most sophisticated of these armed drones, known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, belong to the United States and Israel, and both have used them frequently in the last two decades for targeted killings of militants, a practice condemned by human rights groups and others in part for civilian casualties.
In recent weeks, Hamas tried to fire a handful of its armed drones at Israel, along with thousands of rockets and missiles as the Israeli military has bombarded Gaza with airstrikes. Most of the drones appear to have been shot down by Israeli fighter jets or destroyed on their launchers, in some cases by Israeli drones circling overhead.
Israel made public footage showing an F-16 tracking a drone as a cockpit warning repeats “altitude, altitude,” a warning that the jet is flying too low. A streaking missile suddenly appears on the infrared camera as a white streak, destroying the UAV.
Another Israeli video showed what it said was an airstrike on a “terrorist squad preparing to launch an explosive UAV from Gaza into Israel” and the bombing of a Gaza apartment building that the Israeli Defense Forces said was used by the head of Hamas’ UAV unit. Human rights groups have decried the high civilian death toll from the Gaza Strip bombings, which have destroyed entire residential complexes.
In Iran, the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard has built a domestic drone production industry and uses ships, land routes and cargo planes to smuggle several types of the small aircraft, sometimes in parts, to proxy forces it backs in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and even in small numbers to the Palestinian territories, U.S. officials say. Sometimes it provides plans but no hardware, they add.
Iran has repeatedly denied smuggling drones and other weapons to militant groups in the region.
Even cheaper nonmilitary drones and parts are widely available from China and other sources and can be easily fitted with explosives, turning them into crude but potentially effective single-use weapons, the U.S. officials say.
Such attacks on the U.S. and its allies are becoming more frequent, officials say.
The Hamas drones resemble a type of unmanned aircraft produced by Iran known as an Ababil but are not exact copies, said Joseph Dempsey, a military analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank. The name appears to refer to birds that, in the Quran, protected Mecca by dropping stones on foes. Hamas calls its drone a Shihab, or shooting star in Arabic.
Iran first produced the Ababil in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. But newer versions have been exported around the Middle East. On Friday, after a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas began, Iran unveiled what it said was a new long-range drone, called the Gaza. No footage of the craft in flight was made public.
Separately, Israel said Tuesday it had shot down a drone near its border with Jordan. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the craft was launched by Iran from Syria or Iraq.
Hamas’ drones are smaller than the Iran UAVs, with a different wing configuration and engine parts similar to those sold by Chinese companies, suggesting Hamas built them itself, perhaps receiving technical assistance from Iran, said Dempsey.
The video released by Hamas shows a fighter holding a controller, apparently used when the drone is taking off. Once in flight, it appears to be guided by a basic satellite global positioning device mounted on its fuselage that guides it to a target.
“We’re seeing that access to UAV technology has become so widely available at the low end that they can be developed with relative ease and have a military effect to varying degrees,” Dempsey said.
In western Iraq this month, a drone equipped with an aerial camera attacked an air base used by U.S. forces, damaging a hangar but causing no casualties, said Col. Wayne Marotto, a military spokesman.
Another drone dropped explosives near U.S. forces stationed at Irbil airport in northern Iraq last month.
It was the first known attack carried out by an unmanned aerial drone against U.S. forces in Irbil, amid a steady stream of rocket attacks that Washington blames on Iran-backed militias on bases hosting U.S. forces and the embassy in Baghdad.
No groups claimed responsibility in either Iraq attack, and the U.S. is investigating, officials said.
Small drones can be launched from almost anywhere; some allow a controller to adjust their course in flight, and they fly relatively low. That makes them hard to track and almost impossible to hit with defensive systems common in the Mideast designed to hit ballistic missiles — like Israel’s Iron Dome system or U.S. Patriot anti-missile batteries.
Drones can also be stopped by jamming the guidance system or by shooting them down in flight. Most of the drones in the Middle East fly slowly, making them relatively easy to bring down by fighter planes using air-to-air missiles as long as they can be spotted on radar.
“You can’t predict the trajectory. You can’t predict where the target is. You have to shoot them down on the way,” said Uzi Rubin, the former director of Israel’s missile defense agency. “If they manage to do that … the UAV is helpless against manned aircraft.”
But if a drone isn’t spotted or jammed it has a good chance of getting to its target, especially if multiple unmanned aircraft are launched at once, said Rubin, who was speaking at a forum organized by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, a Washington think tank favoring close U.S.-Israel ties.
“When they are sending them in the hundreds or the thousands, they are saturating, so there is technical challenge,” said Rubin.
Iran is believed to have provided drones, parts and design information to Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have been stepping up their attacks on Saudi Arabia in recent months. The Saudis are backing the Yemeni government forces in the country’s more than six-year civil war.
Along with missile attacks, Houthi forces have launched waves of drone attacks hundreds of miles inside Saudi Arabia. In September 2019, they carried out an attack that inflicted heavy damage on oil plants with missiles and UAVs with delta wings.
A United Nations investigation later concluded that the drones had gyroscopes and engines similar to those used in Iranian drones, leading it to conclude that the “delta-wing UAVs and/or parts thereof used in the attacks on Saudi Arabia were of Iranian origin.”
Since that attack, Saudi Arabia has managed to shoot down many of the incoming drones and missiles, often with the United States’ help, U.S. officials said.
Last month, those officials said, Houthi rebels launched a medium-range missile and 10 armed drones at Ras Tanura and Dammam, eastern Saudi cities with key oil facilities. Saudi Arabia said the attack caused minimal damage.
It released footage showing one of the unmanned aircraft skimming above the desert, heading toward an unknown target in Saudi Arabia. Suddenly it was engulfed in a fiery explosion, apparently hit by an intercepting missile.