Drones in the hands of Hamas: How worrisome is that?

Hamas this week showed it has drones at its disposal, forcing Israel to use a Patriot missile to shoot down one that had entered its airspace. Its drones are low-tech, but they have the attention of US defense analysts. 

Hatem Moussa/AP
Smoke rises after an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, Friday, July 18, 2014.

Now that the military wing of Hamas has shown that it can fly armed drones into Israel, does it herald the dawn of a new era of warfare, as some analysts assert? Or is the drone capability mainly useful as a propaganda tool for Hamas to show Palestinians it can penetrate Israeli air defenses, as others say?

Opinion is divided, but current and former Pentagon officials tend to come down on the side of caution. Though terrorists for many years have plotted to attach weapons to, say, model airplanes, the Hamas drones should be taken seriously, even if they are currently fairly unsophisticated and militarily ineffective, say current and former Pentagon officials.

“The word itself has become a media sensation – just saying you have a drone has propaganda value” both for the Hamas audience and for instilling fear in the Israeli public, says Sam Brannen, who until last year served as the Pentagon’s special assistant to the principal deputy undersecretary for policy.

Only a handful of nations currently operate drones as sophisticated as the Predators and Reapers that the US military uses in Afghanistan and in its clandestine operations in Pakistan and Yemen.

Yet drones are proliferating. Earlier this year, a fairly simple North Korean drone, based on a Chinese model, made an appearance in the demilitarized zone of the Korean Peninsula, Mr. Brannen says. Rebel fighters are using them, too, in Syria, as are government forces. 

“The US is in the lead, but I think everybody who looks at drone proliferation thinks this is something that nonstate actors will use in increasingly effective versions,” Brannen adds. 

Hamas said this week it has acquired several drones of three variants: intelligence and reconnaissance aircraft, an armed drone capable of dropping a payload and returning, and, perhaps most troubling but least sophisticated, a “suicide drone.” Such a drone is packed with explosives and then crashed into a remote target.

Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Islamic militant group, has used drones, too, including one fitted with explosives in an unsuccessful effort to attack an Israeli warship. “This is a threat that I think Israel takes very seriously,” Brannen says.

Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system likely won’t do much to counter incoming drones, which move too slowly for the defense shield to kick in, analysts say. The fact that Israel was forced Monday to use a Patriot missile to shoot down Hamas’s drone is itself a victory for the Palestinian militant group. 

“While what Hamas is doing is not very sophisticated, I wouldn’t be quick to dismiss it as not relevant,” says Paul Scharre, a foreign affairs specialist in the Pentagon’s strategy, plans, and forces office, where he manages policies on unmanned and autonomous systems. “If what Hamas wants to do is to demonstrate that it can fly into Israeli airspace, it gains them some measure of credibility."

He adds: It is a message to Israel that, “ ‘Yes, you can come into Gaza, but not only can we send rockets but [also] drones into your country.’ ”

What’s more, Hamas scores a victory by forcing Israel to respond to its low-tech drone with a missile.

“Those missiles aren’t cheap,” Mr. Scharre says. “It’s the equivalent of using a bazooka to shoot down a fly.”

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