Israel Admits Iron Dome Battery Shot Down One Of Its Own Drones During Gaza Fighting

Friendly and hostile drones are likely to fill the skies in future conflicts and defense systems will need to be able to quickly tell the difference.

A Tamir interceptor is fired from an Iron Dome launcher.
IDF

The Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, has confirmed that an Iron Dome battery accidentally shot down an Israeli Skylark drone during a recent conflict with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. The downing of the Elbit Skylark unmanned aircraft has reportedly caused great concern among Israeli officials, who are worried about what it might mean for future operations where significant numbers of friendly and hostile drones, and potentially manned aircraft, are likely to be zipping around above the battlefield in relatively close proximity.

Israeli media outlet Haaretz was first to report on the accidental shootdown, which the IDF subsequently acknowledged. It's not clear when the incident occurred and how many drones, overall, Iron Dome defense systems may have destroyed in the recent fighting in and around Gaza. The IDF had announced on May 17 that Iron Dome had claimed its first drone kill in combat. Palestinian militant group Hamas also said it had launched a number of unmanned aircraft at Israel during the conflict, including examples of a new "suicide drone" called Shehab, which you can read more about here.

IDF

An IDF soldier prepares to launch a Skylark I drone. An Iron Dome defense system shot down a Skylark drone during the recent fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

“As part of the round of fighting in Gaza and as part of the defense of the country’s skies, an IDF Skylark drone was hit by Iron Dome," was all an IDF spokesperson would tell Haaretz, with similar statements subsequently given to other outlets. "The incident is under investigation."

This recent conflict began on May 10, 2021, though it was precipitated by a number of earlier crises, as you can read about in The War Zone's past reporting. Israeli officials and Hamas, the principal Palestinian group in Gaza, agreed to a ceasefire, brokered by Egypt, on May 21.

The fighting was defined primarily by Palestinian militants in Gaza firing huge barrages of rockets into Israel, with the IDF responding with massive air and artillery strikes on the enclave. An estimated 4,300 rockets were launched toward Israel and there were some 1,500 IDF airstrikes in the nearly two weeks of fighting, according to The Times of Israel. Approximately 243 Palestinians died, including both militants and civilians, some of the latter being children, over the course of the fighting. In Israel, there were 13 fatalities, 12 of which were civilians, also including children.

Iron Dome, which is primarily designed around what is known as the Counter-Rockets, Artillery, and Mortar (C-RAM) mission, was also a major player in the conflict, intercepting hundreds of incoming rockets. This defense system and its Tamir interceptors can also be employed against small drones, as well as low-flying manned aircraft, and has also demonstrated the ability to engage cruise missiles.

It's not clear which specific Skylark model was shot down, but the IDF is known to operate the Skylark I, which is designed to be launched by hand via a slingshot-like system and operated by a small team of dismounted personnel. "Weighing only seven kilograms [~15 pounds], the drones are small, efficient and practically unnoticeable in the air. Equipped with a live video feed, they can fly for up to three hours, at night and in all weather conditions without being detected," according to one official IDF news story. The Skylark's manufacturer, Elbit, also makes the Skylark 2 and 3 drones, which are significantly larger designs and it's not clear if the IDF operates either of these types. 

Whatever the case, "the IDF is investigating the incident and is worried about it because the entirety of the IDF’s combat plans prepared in recent years are based on multi-dimensional fighting with close coordination between land, air and sea forces," according to Haaretz. "The shooting down of a drone raises doubts whether the IDF is sufficiently prepared and possesses the necessary capabilities to conduct a long period of fighting without harming its own forces."

"During the Israel-Gaza conflict, representatives from a foreign aviation authority allowed Israel to leave its airspace open to civilian aviation after Israeli officials made the case that the Iron Dome has the capability to distinguish between hostile and non-threatening aircraft," Haaretz's report added.

As already noted, exactly what led to the Iron Dome battery inadvertently shooting down the Skylark is unclear. It is known that much of the functioning of a complete Iron Dome system, which includes a number of launch units each loaded with up to 20 interceptors, along with associated radars and a battle management and control unit, is heavily automated. On at least one occasion in the past, a huge group of Tamir interceptors were fired after the system misinterpreted machine gun fire as rocket launches.

The concern the IDF clearly has here also has to do with discrimination, but the bigger issue would seem to be whether Iron Dome can readily discern between small friendly drones and hostile ones. Israel's security services have been pioneering users of unmanned aircraft, including loitering munitions, but drone technology is rapidly proliferating, including among non-state actors. Even lower-end designs, including commercially available types, which can be adapted to carry warheads or otherwise employ improvised munitions, present very real threats now.

Skylark is a prime example of how deeply unmanned aircraft are integrated into the IDF's current concepts of operation. These drones, which, as noted, have a very low acoustic signature, are operated by teams assigned to a specific unit of the Artillery Corps known as the Sky Riders. They deploy to provide immediate and actionable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) support during various kinds of operations, including hostage rescue missions or raids to kill or capture specific terrorists. They have also helped scout for signs of tunnels where militants can hide or store munitions in the past.

“The need for [visual intelligence] has changed,” the then-deputy commander of the Sky Riders, identified only as Major Nimrod, told The Times of Israel in 2018. "There are more tunnels now, more enemies hiding among a civilian population."

The targeting of tunnel networks in Gaza, colloquially referred to as the "Metro," was a major component of the IDF's response to the rocket and drone launches from Gaza during the recent fighting. There were even reports that Israeli officials deliberately misled news outlets into thinking a ground incursion had started at one point in order to try to drive militants into those tunnels and then engage them.

At the same time, drones will also be a feature in any higher-end conflicts that Israel is likely to find fighting in the future. Amid the fighting in Gaza, the IDF also shot down what was described as an Iranian "armed drone" near Israel's border with Jordan. 

"Iran sent an armed drone to Israel from Iraq or Syria," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a press conference on May 20, speaking alongside visiting German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. "Iranian forces launched the armed drone, which our forces intercepted on the border between Israel and Jordan."

It remains unclear who Netanyahu was referring to specifically when he said "Iranian forces" and whether he may have been referring, in part, to Iranian-backed proxies that operate across the Middle East. In the past, Israel has accused members of the Quds Force, the arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) responsible for conducting operations outside of that country, of directly leading attacks on Israel, including from Syria, in instances where proxies were also involved.

It's also important to note that there have long been issues surrounding discrimination and so-called non-cooperative target recognition (NCTR) when it comes to air and missile defense, generally. It is very unlikely that Skylark and other drones of similar size, and even some larger designs, carry commercial transponders, let alone the kinds of highly specialized identification friend or foe (IFF) gear found on more traditional military aircraft that is intended to help prevent this kind of fratricide. Without these systems to help rapidly identify aircraft, air defenders have even tragically mistaken commercial airliners for threats on more than one occasion. Friendly-fire incidents have occurred in spite of the presence of IFF systems, too.

Of course, the increasing use of smaller drones that may not even be physically able to accommodate IFF systems will certainly add a new dimension to these issues. It may simply turn out that such losses become an accepted part of future operations, at least to some degree, helped by the fact that there is no risk in these situations to a human pilot.

All told, it's hardly surprising that Iron Dome's accidental shootdown of the Skylark would give IDF officials pause, even if a solution or solutions to the underlying issues may be readily apparent. The recent fighting in Gaza put immense strain on Iron Dome batteries, highlighting the challenges that continuous mass saturation attacks pose to the system, in general, something The War Zone recently explored in depth

That reality already presents significant incentives for Israel's opponents to simply expand their rocket and drone arsenals with hopes of overwhelming these defenses. One would imagine that the IDF might be worried that news of this friendly fire incident could also inform how militants and terrorists seek to employ their own drones in the future to try to confuse Israeli air and missile defense personnel. 

It is already well established that swarms of fully autonomous networked drones, and even mass drone attacks with a lower degree of coordination, inherently have the ability to overwhelm defenders and otherwise make it hard for them to respond in the most efficient manner. Various other countries are no doubt keeping a close eye on this new news about Iron Dome's performance during the recent fighting in and around Gaza in order to inform both future drone and counter-drone efforts.

It will be interesting to see what new details may now begin to emerge about this incident and what it might mean for Iron Dome, as well as broader efforts to counter the growing threat of hostile drones in what is likely to be increasingly congested airspace over future battlefields.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com