Warplanes: Hezbollah Arms Its Iranian UAVs

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October 8, 2014: In mid-2014 there were several reports of the Shia Hezbollah militia in Lebanon using Iranian UAVs as cruise missiles, rather than for reconnaissance. The targets were Sunni al Qaeda Islamic terrorists. Shia and Sunni have been fighting each other in Lebanon for centuries and this conflict was the major cause of the 1975-90 civil war there. Now that fighting has renewed as a side effect of the Syrian civil war (another Sunni-Shia affair).

Iran has supplied both Hezbollah and Hamas (in Gaza) with UAVs, most of them Ababils . The Iranians have been developing UAVs since the 1980s. One of their most successful designs was the Ababil, which was introduced in 2006. Over400 Ababils have been produced so far. This is an 82 kg (183 pound) UAV with a 2.9 meter (9.5 foot) wing span, a payload of about 35 kg (77 pounds), a cruising speed of 290 kilometers an hour, and an endurance of 90 minutes for the first model. Current models (Ababil 3) can stay up for about four hours. The Ababil is known to operate as far as 249 kilometers from its ground controller. But it also has a GPS guidance system that allows it to fly a pre-programmed route and then return to its ground controllers for a landing (which is by parachute). This GPS guidance could also be used for one way flights with the UAV carrying explosives and a trigger to detonate them on impact. The guidance system would also have to be modified for use as a cruise missile but since the Iranians built Ababil this would not be a problem. Normally the Ababil carries a variety of day and night still and video cameras. There are many inexpensive and very capable cameras available on the open market, as well as the equipment needed to transmit video and pictures back to the ground.

The Ababil has been seen in Gaza, Sudan and Lebanon, where Iranian backed Hezbollah has received at least a dozen of them. The Israelis feared that the low flying Ababils could come south, carrying a load of nerve gas or even just explosives. Using GPS guidance such a UAV could hit targets very accurately. That has never happened and Israel tweaked its air defense radars to detect small targets like Ababil.

Ababil should not come as a surprise. There's nothing exotic about UAV technology, at least for something like Ababil. Iranian UAV development also got a boost from American UAVs received in the 1970s (Firebee target drones). In the last few years Hamas, in Gaza, obtained some Ababils, but these were not seen in the air until the July 2014 war between Hamas and Israel. Hamas claims to have used Ababil frequently to spy on Israel but there is no evidence for this (like recent photos taken of Israeli facilities).

American troops have also encountered Ababil. In early 2009 the U.S. Air Force shot down an Iranian Ababil UAV over Iraq. The downed Iranian UAV was believed to be scouting smuggling routes, to be used to get weapons and agents into Iraq.

Twice in July 2014 Israeli Patriot anti-aircraft missiles were used to shoot down Hamas Ababil UAVs sent to seek out or attack Israeli military targets.  This was the first time Israeli Patriots had something to shoot down since the 1990s. Hamas said it used its Ababil UAVs both for reconnaissance and, with the cameras replaced with explosives, as cruise missiles. Hamas also released pictures of an Ababil carrying four unguided rockets. This may have just been a propaganda photo because firing small, unguided rockets from an Ababil would not be very effective.

Recently Hezbollah has been using its Ababils mostly inside Lebanon, as Israel greatly improved their aircraft detection systems in the north after several Hezbollah attempts to get Ababils into Israel itself. Now there appears to be proof that Hezbollah has “weaponized” Ababils (or something similar) for use against al Qaeda. Israel fears they could be next on that target list.

 

 


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