Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Israeli Shot-Down Drone Sea Launched?

Sea-launched Ababil UAV
Much speculation has occured regarding the mystery UAV the Israeli Air Force shot down over the Negev Desert last Saturday.  A number of interesting theories have been proposed, including those connecting the drone with naval activity:
  • The Hezbollah-affiliated al-Mayadeen channel reported Sunday that the drone originated in Lebanon and flew 100 km into Israeli airspace, however the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon did not detect any UAVs leaving Lebanese airspace.  Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) has been bolstering its UAV force with Iranian built tactical UAVs, so it might be possible that an aircraft flew undetected through across the border.  The Israelis confirmed the drone did not originate in Gaza and some sources to point to Lebanon.  The problem is that the aircraft would have flown at least 200 km and LH probably doesn't possess any UAVs in the inventory capable of this range.
  • Twitterati @drunkenpredator speculates that the aircraft might have been an Ababil 3, launched at sea from a small fishing boat or other craft.    Some reports indicate that the aircraft arrived in Israeli airspace from over the Mediterranean, flying west to east. The Ababil (max range likely 150 km) can be launched from a tiny footprint using a pneumatic rail or rocket boosters and has been tested at sea by the Iranians.  This theory seems unlikely though, in that it appears there is no way for the Ababil to recover at sea.  Non-state actors, even those as well-kitted as LH, would be unlikely to use a limited inventory of these valuable assets for one-way trips.  And although LH has demonstrated maritime capacity in the form of anti-ship missiles and cargo ships to smuggle said weapons, they likely don't have a real surface capability, even using small craft.
  • It was an American carrier-launched UAV!  This would be interesting indeed, but completely implausible given there are currently no U.S. CVNs in the Mediterranean.
  • Here, more speculation that the unidentified aircraft came from a ship - a space ship.  I'm going go with a no on this one.
Israeli CH-53s examine UAV wreckage. (Hiam Horenstein)
So where exactly did the mystery UAV orginate?  The UAV's wreckage has been recovered and forensics are underway, and it's likely there is some close-up gun-camera footage (possibly from the F-16 that fired the missile, rather than the one that filmed the released video of the shoot-down) which would enable the Israelis to identify the type of UAV.  Whether or not they publicize that information is another question. The Lebanon origin point sounds like the most likely option.  LH may have flown the UAV over the sea to avoid land-based air detection and vectored it into shore once it reached the target area in Israel.  It would not be far-fetched that LH lost communications with an Ababil or other tactical UAV and the drone just kept flying to its maximum physical range.  Alternatively, the UAV might represent an Ababil modified to fly longer ranges or some other identified vehicle. 

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