Hizbullah's Worrisome Weapon

Hizbullah's chief, Hassan Nasrallah, spent the past two years bragging about a remote-control aircraft that could carry an explosive device to strike a target anywhere inside Israel. He finally put that threat into action a few weeks ago, during the Lebanon war, launching three of the pilotless planes toward Israeli targets--including two on the war's last day. They were Iranian-built Ababil unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), capable of carrying an 88-pound warhead for up to 150 miles. The Israelis say Hizbullah received at least 12 UAVs from Iran before the war--meaning that Nasrallah may still have a small arsenal of them hidden away for future use.

How dangerous could terrorist UAVs be? Some analysts doubt that the pilotless planes are a real threat. Ephraim Sneh, a retired Israeli general and a Labor Party member of Parliament, says a UAV's relatively small payload gives only "limited" capacity to inflict damage--although it still packs significantly more explosive power than any of the unguided Katyusha rockets that pounded northern Israel until the fighting stopped. All three UAVs launched by Hizbullah during the 33-day war were shot down by Israeli jets before they could do any harm. It's easy if you know how, says Israel's outgoing chief of military intelligence, Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser.

Still, many U.S. and Israeli defense experts are worried. What if terrorists crashed a UAV into a petrochemical facility? Or detonated it inside a packed sports stadium? "I suspect they would have loved to hit one of our national symbols," says another Israeli source, asking not to be named discussing sensitive military matters. The vehicles, especially models with sophisticated guidance systems like the Ababil's, can fly close to the ground, making them tough to detect by radar.

The Pentagon saw the risk even before Lebanon erupted. This past January, NEWSWEEK has learned, the U.S. Air Force ordered a classified study of the UAV threat. The Air Force's Scientific Advisory Board is still working on its report, which is expected to suggest ways to disable the planes--possibly by jamming their remote signals--without affecting America's own communications. In laying out the study's "terms of reference," Air Force officials warned that the "total number of UAVs, including those that have the potential to be used against U.S. interests, is proliferating exponentially."

U.S. analysts have particular qualms about the Tehran regime. "If the Iranians supplied UAVs to Hizbullah, there's no reason they couldn't supply similar capability to elements of the insurgency in Iraq," says Roger Cressey, a former counterterrorism official on the National Security Council. A senior Pentagon official, asking not to be named discussing strategic issues, says U.S. troops are equipped to track most tactical objects that become airborne, including at least some of the smaller pilot-less planes. But the terrorists and their weapons keep growing more sophisticated. Tim Owings, the deputy project manager for the U.S. Army's own Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems, says his team is giving close attention to the threat. "We're certainly spending more time exploring counter-type activities," he tells NEWSWEEK. Now Nasrallah has made the task more urgent than ever.