The Israel Air Force has begun using unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions over Israeli gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea out of fear that they will be targeted by Hezbollah.
In early July, the cabinet approved the demarcation of Israel’s northern maritime border with Lebanon, which sets the economic rights in offshore territories that have become lucrative with the recent discoveries of vast natural-gas resources.
The government’s decision to delineate the line was made to combat Lebanese claims to offshore territories that Israel claims as its own.
The decision to deploy IAF drones was made after Hezbollah warned Israel that it would protect Lebanon’s maritime sovereignty. Lebanon “will remain vigilant in order to regain its full rights, whatever it takes,” Hezbollah deputy chief Naim Qassem was quoted as saying.
The Israel Navy has already drafted an operational plan for protecting the offshore gas fields and the decision to deploy drones was made in order to maintain a 24-hour presence over the site. The IAF operates the Heron unmanned aerial vehicle, developed by Israel Aerospace Industries, which comes with a special electro-optic payload for maritime operations.
Meanwhile, this month, the IAF’s first squadron of UAVs, celebrated 40 years since it was established in 1971.
“UAVs are a critical part of the battlefield today, as can be seen by the dramatic increase in the amount of flight hours of drones in the IAF – and they can also contribute to watching over gas fields,” a senior defense official said.
Israel’s concern is that Hezbollah will try to attack the Israeli gas rigs at sea in explosive- laden ships, or with anti-ship missiles.
Last week, the head of Naval Intelligence, V.-Adm. Yaron Levi, said Hezbollah and Hamas have obtained advanced missiles capable of hitting Israeli ports or offshore oil and gas rigs.
“The challenges facing the navy are many, from the Gaza Strip to the North,” Levi said at a conference in Tel Aviv. “Iran is overseeing everything from above. Iran is the dominant element in regards to funding and transferring goods and weapons to our neighboring countries.”
Levi said the navy closely monitored the military buildup within the Gaza Strip and Lebanon and tracked ships that sailed in the Mediterranean to prevent the smuggling of advanced weaponry. In February, the navy intercepted a ship transporting Iranian-made anti-ship missiles to Hamas.
“Terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah have become de facto rulers,” Levi said. “They are sponsored by countries with significant military capabilities.
Among other things, we are aware of the anti-ship missiles that are possessed by terrorist organizations and are preparing accordingly.”