Deadly Siege Marks Hamas’ Effective Use of Combat Drone Swarm 

Both Israel and Hamas have deployed drones but are using them in different ways—and with different results.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, Hamas, a U.S.-recognized terrorist group based in Palestine, launched an attack on Israel via the ground, sea, and air, firing thousands of drones on Israeli civilians, infrastructure, and defense assets.

In response, Israel swiftly declared a state of war and fired back, sending its own barrage of drones toward the Gaza Strip. As of Tuesday, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and Hamas had each sustained major casualties. But the victims were mostly civilians—more than 1,000 Israelis and 900 Palestinians had been killed as of Tuesday evening. Around 150 Israelis are being held hostage by Hamas gunmen.

A few years ago, those horrific figures may not have been as staggering. But with the emergence of technologies like drones, warring foes are now capable of inflicting staggering damage to precisely targeted locations.

The early days of the conflict have raised many questions. How did Hamas—a small terrorist cell with limited resources—manage to launch an assault on one of the wealthiest nations in the world? What do Israel’s air defense capabilities look like? And how could the tide of battle shift with the introduction of drones from foreign actors?

These are complex questions, but we did our best to provide answers.

What Are Hamas’ Drone Capabilities?

Hamas so far has deployed a variety of drones to varying degrees of success. But the terrorist group likely received outside help from Iran and others.

“The IDF naturally has far more sophisticated drones and surveillance than Hamas does,” Professor Audrey Kurth Cronin, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Institute for Security and Technology, told FLYING. “But this shocking, horrible attack demonstrated that we must look more broadly in the war between Hamas and Israel.”

DroneSec, a drone adversary intelligence firm that provides counter-drone technology to governments and militaries worldwide, analyzed publicly available photo and video of the Saturday morning attacks, which Hamas refers to as “Operation Al-Aqsa Storm/Flood.”

In a report viewed by FLYING, DroneSec cited a video showing the camera view of a Hamas drone dropping munitions on an Israeli Merkava-4 tank. Later in the video, a different view appears to depict icons used by China’s DJI, the largest drone manufacturer in the world. DroneSec said the aircraft was “likely” a DJI quadcopter, which is also being deployed by Russia against Ukraine.

DroneSec also analyzed videos that showed drones hitting an ambulance, a communications tower, the Israeli border fence and its defenses (such as a machine gun turret), and IDF soldiers. But the strikes also targeted defenseless villages, killing hundreds of Israeli civilians.

Hamas reportedly used 35 Zouavi suicide drones in the invasion, and the Israeli government reported more than 2,200 incoming rockets on Saturday morning alone. That’s nearly quadruple the previous single-day record of 670 in 2021.

The terrorist group’s Zouavi drones fly long distances before exploding on impact and resemble toy airplanes…as well as drones produced by Iran and Russia, a group of current and former Western and Middle Eastern intelligence officials told the Washington Post. 

The models contain Farsi terms in their blueprints and are almost identical to those used by the Houthis, an Iran-backed terrorist group in Yemen, said Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Washington Institute’s Military and Security Studies Program.

Professor Michael J. Armstrong, associate professor of operations research at Brock University in Ontario, agreed that the fixed-wing suicide drones resembled those produced by Iran. But Armstrong told FLYING there do not appear to be enough of these models to pose “more than a nuisance” for Israel.

Hamas also sent some militants across the border on powered hang gliders, whose lightweight construction may have helped them avoid radar detection. Once in Israel, fighters attacked the Re’im military base, which housed a high concentration of drone and surveillance operators. The base was overtaken and later regained. But the attack neutralized many of Israel’s counter-drone capabilities Saturday morning.

Officials told the Washington Post that Saturday’s attack “bore hallmarks of Iranian support,” and Iran was likely heavily involved in training Hamas hang gliders. They also accused Iran of providing military training, logistics support, and tens of millions of dollars for weapons.

Officials noted Saturday’s attack was more complex than any previous Hamas air operation. They suspected it would be impossible without considerable outside help, adding that the group may have been planning the invasion as early as mid-2022 with Iran’s support.

Iranian officials denied responsibility but celebrated the attacks in statements shared to the media. On Monday, an unnamed senior defense official said the Department of Defense has “no specifics” to corroborate the report.

Per a 2020 U.S. State Department report, Iran sends about $100 million per year to Palestinian terrorist groups, including Hamas. The group’s leader said in an interview last year that it had received $70 million but did not specify over what timespan.

Several officials told the Post that Iran provided “technical help” to manufacture over 4,000 rockets and drones for Hamas, many of which were deployed Saturday. They said at least some militants had received training in advanced military tactics, including at camps in neighboring Lebanon, where another Iran-backed terrorist cell, Hezbollah, is based. 

Hezbollah on Sunday fired missiles and shells at an Israeli military post along the Lebanese border, a potential warning shot to deter outside involvement from the U.S. and other Israeli allies.

The Houthis may also get involved in the conflict: A spokesperson for the group on Monday told Newsweek it plans to support Hamas. The Houthis are believed to have access to a “vast arsenal of drones and missiles,” including Iranian-made loitering munitions that have been used by Russia to decimate Ukraine, Newsweek reported.

How is Israel Countering Hamas Drones?

The IDF made headlines in 2021 when it completed construction on a $1 billion barrier along the Israel-Gaza border, and security technology was Israel’s top-funded sector last year. However, the country’s physical borders and counter-drone systems were overwhelmed by hordes of enemy drones.

In addition to the barrier, Israel prevents attacks using the Iron Dome, a short-range, anti-artillery system developed by Israeli firm Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. Each Iron Dome is designed to defend a 60-square-mile populated area, firing interceptors at projectiles that pose a threat. There are 10 spread throughout the country.

The IDF claimed the system successfully intercepted 97 percent of the targets it engaged during a summer 2022 confrontation in which the Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired rockets into Israel. The country’s military also relies on the Iron Beam, a high-energy laser interception system also developed by Rafael.

But both Iron Dome and Iron Beam have one vulnerability: drone swarms. The systems are susceptible to vast numbers of aircraft and were likely overwhelmed by the onslaught of Hamas drones, but only because the terrorist cell’s offensive was multifaceted.

According to Cronin, Israel would “easily” have won a “drone-on-drone contest.” But Hamas’ combination of attacks from the air, land, and sea was too much for its defenses to handle. She said the terrorist cell also optimized its use of drone technology to get the most out of scarce, less advanced resources, comparing it to Russia’s use of small, cheap DJI drones.

“Directly comparing the drones of each side is a bit like comparing rifles on each side,” Cronin said. “The U.S. M-16 was far superior to the AK-47, yet that did not yield a U.S. victory in the Vietnam War, for example. The role of IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan is another case. What matters here is the accessibility of the technology (even in more primitive forms), and how well it is used.”

Armstrong said it is “ironic” Israel was caught off-guard by Hamas drones, which are smaller and less sophisticated than those deployed by the IDF. On previous occasions, the military sighted and shot down simple recon drones, but “this the first one where Hamas has made effective combat use of them,” he said.

However, with Hamas’ capabilities now known, Armstrong suggested the tides of battle could shift.

“Now that the initial surprise attack is over, I think drones will be more useful for Israel than for Hamas,” he said. “Israel can use theirs for spotting targets for real-time strikes, to leverage its huge firepower advantage. Conversely, with the surprise gone, any casualties Hamas might inflict using explosives dropped by drones will be minor compared to those from its rockets.”

What Support Can the U.S. Provide?

Outside of a statement from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announcing the movement of U.S. forces, the Department of Defense has largely been tight-lipped about what its support for Israel may look like.

According to Austin, the Navy aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford and Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60) will move into the Eastern Mediterranean to conduct air and maritime operations in the region. Four Arleigh-Burke-class guided missile destroyers will also be deployed. The Air Force, meanwhile, augmented its F-35, F-15, F-16, and A-10 fighter aircraft squadrons in the region.

Though the U.S. is also supporting Ukrainian forces in Eastern Europe and working to deter a military buildup in China, Austin did not seem to have concern that U.S. forces might be spread thin.

“The U.S. maintains ready forces globally to further reinforce this deterrence posture if required,” Austin said. “In addition, the U.S. government will be rapidly providing the IDF with additional equipment and resources, including munitions. The first security assistance will begin moving today and arriving in the coming days.”

In a background briefing, an unnamed senior defense official could offer few details on the DOD’s strategy moving forward, but echoed the Defense Secretary’s comments.

“At this point in time, we have the resources, authorities, and funding to continue our support to Israel within, of course, the Memorandum of Understanding for security assistance,” the official told members of the media.

“We are able to continue our support both to Ukraine, Israel, and maintain our own global readiness,” they added.

The official pointed to a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. and Israel, signed in 2018, as the basis for U.S. shipments of vehicles, equipment, and munitions. Under that agreement, the U.S. in 2023 allocated $25 million toward “US-Israeli anti-drone cooperation,” per a Congressional Research Study delivered to U.S. lawmakers earlier this year.

The report also highlighted a recent defense spending bill, which modified the agreement to include “directed energy capabilities.” It raised the cap on U.S. annual contributions from $25 million to $40 million—suggesting greater U.S. support moving forward—and extended the program’s authorization through 2026.

The change would appear to echo the senior defense official’s pledge to provide “the highest level of security assistance and missile defense funding to Israel ever in the history of our bilateral relationship.”

The fear, however, is that other groups with Iranian drone technology—which has proven effective in both Israel and Ukraine—will enter the fray in support of Hamas. The official said the DOD is monitoring the Middle East for any actors that might escalate tensions, mentioning Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Iraq by name. The U.S.’s watchful eye on these groups suggests it could adjust its support as the conflict evolves, but Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Monday said the U.S. does not plan to put boots on the ground.

In short, Israel’s air defenses were unprepared for a barrage of small, cheap drones, and the involvement of Iran and other terrorist groups was likely underestimated. But with Hamas’ and its supporters’ capabilities now out in the open, the IDF, with the support of the U.S. and its allies, has a path to gain the upper hand.

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