Israeli media have announced that the IAF has “lost” (Hebrew and English) yet another of its advanced drones, the Hermes-450, one of the most advanced of its fleet. This marks the third vehicle lost in a similar manner in the past six months. A fourth drone was “lost” two years ago and reported in a post I published here. I note my Israeli source reported originally that the drone was operated by Hezbollah and deliberately crashed into the base. It’s also possible that Hezbollah or Iran took control of an Israeli drone and crashed it into the base; or that its Israeli controllers crashed it purposely because its navigation system had been hacked. I’ve previously reported (and here) on the various crashes.
Though Israeli security officials invariably call the cause of the failure a “technical malfunction,” it is only that in the sense that the collapse of the World Trade Center was a technical malfunction. In other words, these crashes were caused by an enemy hacking into the navigation system and taking control of the drone.
Here is how the air force explains its decision to destroy the vehicles in mid-flight:
IDF officials explained at the time that the decision to down the UAV was made due to concerns that control over the drone would be lost, and it might crash into populated areas.
In actuality, they weren’t in control of them and didn’t know what the Iranians or Lebanese would do with them. They might crash them into a building or air base inside Israel or they might fly it to Lebanon where they could study its components further.
Israel’s media itself may not believe the lies offered by the IAF. This is the Walla! headline:
Drones Falling, and with Them, IDF’s Credibility
The article also notes that the continued failures of the Hermes 450 have harmed the reputation of the IDF. If I were commander of a drone fleet I wouldn’t allow them to fly again till I had a totally new navigational system that couldn’t be penetrated. Though Israel did ground portions of its fleet after one of the crashes, it apparently didn’t help. To me, this indicates either IAF hubris or incompetence. Of course, Iranian cyber-engineers are no slouches as well.
An anonymous Israel source (not the one referenced above) sent me this e mail message today which was either written by a terrific bluffer, or by someone who knows what they’re talking about (my bet is on the latter):
The UAV didn’t crash, the UAV control center lost communication due to heavy interference in the COM link. After few very long minutes at which the re establish comm procedure failed, the CCC (control center commander) ordered the self destruction of the UAV. There was lots of drama as it appeared the UAV had a mind of its own or that someone gained positive control.
As I reported in the past, I don’t know for sure whether Iran or Hezbollah is responsible or some combination, but they are the most likely suspects. Here is what my source says about the latest attack:
The source of the drone hacks was electronically traced to Lebanon, so either Hezbollah did it with Iranian technology or IRG forces there did it themselves.
In addition, Iran announced recently that it had reverse engineered the same Hermes 450 which was downed yesterday. If it could reverse engineer it, it can figure out how to hack into the controls as well. This raises another issue: if it’s true Iran succeeded in copying Israel’s most advanced drone it did so in one of two ways; either it captured a drone in the way I suggest above or it gained access to its technical specs through some sort of espionage. If it captured a drone, that means there was yet another drone failure in which the Iranians actually succeeded in capturing the vehicle as it did a U.S. drone a year ago. Iran has boasted it has reverse engineered this vehicle too.
Ironically, the Israeli defense industry publication, IsraelDefense, will host a conference (Hebrew) on drone technology and cyber-issues related to it in a few hours. One of the key issues this Hebrew language articles indicates will be at the center of the event will be the issue of security, both how Israelis may penetrate the drones of their enemies and protect their own from such hacking. Given these failures, conference attendees will have their work cut out for them.
The operative phrase here is: what goes around, comes around. Israel builds these vehicles to spy on its enemies. It uses them to kill its enemies. I should add here that my Israeli source renews his claim about the IRG commander Mojtada Ahmadi, who was murdered a few days ago in Iran. He says the Mossad assassinated him because, among his offenses, was orchestrating the campaign to sabotage Israel’s drone fleet. I repeat, I haven’t been able to confirm this claim independently and nothing coming out of Iran says anything other than that he was murdered. So proceed with caution.
Israel’s enemies, in turn, will eventually return the favor once they have mastered the technology. It’s only a question of when and how. This is yet another part of the cyberwar drama being played out now between Israel and its enemies. First you had Stuxnet and Flame, then you had Iranian hackers taking down Saudi oil companies and U.S. banks. Now we have sabotaged drones and possibly assassinated cyberwar chiefs. This can go a long way and end up in a very ugly place (and likely will).
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.