According to new research from IHS Jane's, the arms industry publication, terrorist group Hezbollah now has the world's largest non-state drone fleet. The group claims to operate over 200 Iranian made drones and the militant Shia group has even constructed an airstrip in the northern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, for its fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), an analysis of satellite imagery suggests.
The Bekaa Valley is located in a remote and barely populated area about 6 miles south of the town of Hermel and just 10 miles west of the Syrian border. The crude airstrip was built sometime between February 27 2013 and June 19 2014. The analysts studied imagery that recently became publicly available on Google Earth.
The field consists of a single unpaved runway with a length of 2000 ft and width of 60 ft. Material has been excavated from a nearby quarry to build up the northern end of the strip so that it is level. It is built over a shorter strip that had been in existence since at least 2010.
The relatively short length of the strip indicates that the facility is not intended to smuggle in weapons shipments from Syria or Iran as it is too short for virtually all the transport aircraft used by the air forces of those countries.
Another explanation is that the runway has been built for Iranian-made drones, including the Ababil-3, which has been employed over Syria by forces allied to the Syrian regime, and possibly the newer and larger Shahed-129.
A Hezbollah spokesman actually confirmed to IHS Jane's that the organization is using drones in operations against rebel forces in Syria, particularly over the mountainous Qalamoun region on Lebanon's eastern border.
The terror group's new airbase includes a large antenna located on a hill 1300 ft south of the strip. While it appears to be a standard Lebanese mobile telephone tower it could potentially be used to extend the range of a drone ground control station.
Hezbollah has operated UAVs from Lebanese airspace since November 2004, when it dispatched one that it identified as a Mirsad-1 for a brief reconnaissance mission over northern Israel. It then flew attempted to fly at least three UAVs into Israel during the July-August 2006 war.
Hezbollah said it was responsible for the UAV that was shot down over southern Israel on October 6th 2012. It said it used an Iranian-made aircraft for the incursion.
Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Iranian Aerospace Forces, said the UAV was of a type that had been in existence for a decade, a possible reference to the Ababil-3.
Iranian UAVs have been spotted on numerous occasions in Syrian airspace, mainly the Ababil-3 variant, but also the smaller Yasir-type.
The fact Hezbollah operates the same drone types as Iran leads to issues identifying who is operating the drones when they are spotted. The new airbase suggest Hezbollah will be ramping up its UAV operations in the coming months.