Guest Essay: “Don’t give Hamas too much credit: the high school AV club has drones, too”

We’ve heard a lot about drones in the Ukraine conflict, but what about their use in the Israel-Hamas war?  Specifically, to what extent has Hamas, a terrorist organization, been able to leverage this technology…or not? 

Today we welcome two new contributors, Lt Col (Dr.) Paul Lushenko and Dr. Keith Carter who will unpack this issue for us.  As you can see from their impressive bios, they are heavy-duty experts.

You may find their analysis–as I did–surprising!  You can learn a lot from this provocative post!

Don’t give Hamas too much credit: the high school AV club has drones, too

LTC Paul Lushenko, PhD and Dr. Keith L. Carter

Experts agree that Hamas’s brutal attack against Israeli citizens on October 7, 2023, constituted a strategic failure for Israel’s intelligence services. More debatable is the extent to which Hamas demonstrated a mastery of using novel battlefield technologies, especially unmanned aerial vehicles or drones.

To benchmark Hamas’s drone capability, experts have looked to Ukraine’s war with Russia. Ukraine offers a convenient case study for how drones can afford less capable militaries asymmetric advantages against stronger opponents, which can level the playing field during war.

Contextualized against the war in Ukraine, experts make competing claims for Hamas’s use of drones. Critics, such as Yannick Veilleux-Lepage and Emil Archambault, argue that Hamas’s recent attack on Israel shows the terrorist group “has not demonstrated any ability to regularly use drones successfully.”

The few videos that have emerged of Hamas’s use of drones during its attack are the exception that prove the rule for the group’s inchoate capability. Other scholars, such as Kerry Chávez and Ori Swed counter, stating that “Hamas innovated with drones to operate like an army.” Further, they claim that the group is demonstrating “a capacity to field a multidomain force against a stronger adversary.”

Given the available evidence, we argue that this latter line of reasoning overestimates Hamas’s drone capability. Not only was Hamas’s drone program fledgling prior to its recent attack. But Israel’s siege of Gaza, combined with its campaign to defeat Hamas there, promises to destroy the terrorist group’s drone capability, or make it combat-ineffective until it is rebuilt.

Indeed, analysts have shown that the scope and scale of Hamas’s use of drones during its pogrom against Israelis is much less than meets the eye. In light of these observations, we contend that three fallacies help explain scholars’ inflation of Hamas’s drone program. These include mischaracterizing the group’s adoption of drones, misunderstanding military doctrine, and analytical bias.  

Fallacy #1: Hamas is partly responsible for drone proliferation globally 

Research suggests that drones, ranging from commercially-available to tactical to armed and networked platforms, proliferate for several instrumental, political economic, and social-psychological reasons.

First, militaries seek to acquire drones based on the perceived benefits, including their ability to enhance force protection while imposing unacceptable costs on opponents. Second, drone manufacturing countries export the capability to gain economic and security dividends, consisting of profit and influence. Finally, drones afford approbation or status, with a drone program reflecting that a group has joined the venerable “drone club.”

Though some experts claim that Hamas maintains an advanced drone program, apparently enabling its multidomain attack against Israel, research shows that Hamas primarily adopted drones for reputational gain, or to overcome dissatisfaction with a lack of international recognition.

Because of such status-seeking behavior, Hamas’s drone program is limited in scope and scale, meaning that the group has fewer and less capable drones than analysts often assume. Videos of Hamas’s use of drones during its attack are few and far between. Some are also old and predate the invasion by years.

However, multiple analysts have interpreted this propaganda to substantiate the claim that Hamas, similar to al-Qaeda and Islamic State, constitutes the causal mechanism driving the proliferation of drones, not countries. Chávez and Swed, for example, contend that “Hamas didn’t learn how to use drones from the Russians and Ukrainians; the Russians and Ukrainians learned how to use small drones from violent non-state actors,” including Hamas.

Yet we require systematically derived evidence to determine the extent to which Hamas, and other terrorist organizations, explain the proliferation of drones globally, and for what reasons. To be fair, Chávez and Swed have explored this question, finding that network affiliations predict non-state actors’ adoption of drones.

This finding seems to contradict the genesis of Hamas’s drone program, however. Hamas’s chief patron is Iran, and Chávez and Swed also find that Iranian-sponsorship does not shape terrorist groups’ adoption of drones.

Thus, it appears that Hamas, at least in part, fended for itself on the international drone marketplace, intent to present the semblance of a drone program to enhance its global standing and garner legitimacy among the Palestinian diaspora for its fundamental mission to destroy Israel.

Fallacy #2: Hamas’s limited and tactical use of drones reflects a wholesale shift in its military doctrine

Doctrine consists of a set of descriptive and prescriptive guidelines that shape militaries’ tactics, campaigns, and strategies. Despite the emergence of new capabilities, including drones, experts agree that the best doctrine encourages combined arms maneuver. As such, militaries synchronize capabilities across time, space, and force, with the intent of overwhelming an adversary’s capability to respond.

Upon close inspection, it is clear that Hamas did not use drones in this way, although some experts contend that the group did. Rather, Hamas used its limited bench stock of drones for a narrow tactical task—disruption.

Chávez and Swed note that Hamas used drones to “blind, deafen, and confuse the Israeli defense.” At most, this means that the group’s drone attacks on observation towers, cameras, and communications systems momentarily disrupted Israel’s situational awareness.

More importantly, Hamas’s drone operations were evidently decoupled from a broader campaign designed to synchronize a wide variety of capabilities to achieve the group’s military objectives. It appears that Hamas’s use of drones did not meaningfully inform the group’s decisions to adjust its attack while it was underway.

Yet advanced militaries build flexibility into their operations by forecasting, to the greatest extent possible, likely adjustments. These adjustments are based on iterative wargaming, which is designed to identify information requirements that create what military strategists call “decision points.” This planning tool drives follow-on operations that are known as “branches”—contingencies—and “sequels”—subsequent actions—to a current base plan.  

Indeed, after orienting its military and police to the invasion, Israeli officials quickly maneuvered them to destroy pockets of Hamas terrorists. It turns out that Hamas did not adjust its operational approach in response, in which the group would have dynamically re-tasked its drone fleet to locate, track, and engage Israeli first responders.

Instead, Hamas terrorists haphazardly retrograded into Gaza, if they were not killed first and only after massacring and raping Israelis, to consolidate, reorganize, and strongpoint subterranean tunnels in anticipation of an Israeli clearing operation.

In sum, analysts who claim that Hamas’s use of drones heralds a new way of war are guilty of essentializing drone warfare to specific platforms, types of operations, and intended—tactical—effects. As Lushenko has argued elsewhere, evolving patterns of drone warfare are not reducible to a certain drone, military task, or tactical outcome.

New models of drone warfare relate to variation in how militaries use and constrain drones in concert with other capabilities to achieve operational results across the depth and breadth of a battlefield.

Given this understanding, Hamas’s drone program, driven largely by status considerations, does not constitute a force multiplier for the group’s adoption of a multidomain force. At most, Hamas adopted drones to impose psychological costs on Israelis and achieve some limited and localized effects.

Fallacy #3: Israel’s debatable lack of counter-drone capabilities suggests that Hamas fielded a new model of drone warfare

Selection bias and reverse causation also help account for a mischaracterization of Hamas’s drone program. In terms of selection bias, some observers have relied on limited examples of Hamas’s use of drones to draw a sweeping conclusion for a broader shift in drone warfare on account of the terrorist group.

In terms of reverse causation, other observers have also interpreted Israel’s initial failure to interdict Hamas’s limited use of drones as evidence that the terrorist group has revolutionized drone warfare.

Yet all militaries, including the United States’ armed forces, are vulnerable to drones and there is no panacea for force protection. Militaries must integrate a variety of countermeasures, including artillery and electronic pulses, to either destroy drones or disorient them.

Conflating Israel’s critical vulnerability—a lack of protection—with Hamas’s critical capability—commercial and tactical drones—does not reflect a new model of drone warfare. It only reinforces what we already know: militaries have a gap in counter-drone capabilities that opponents are exploiting to gain limited duration asymmetrical advantages.

We need more time and evidence to accurately assess Hamas’s drone program  

It is true that scholars’ preoccupation with armed and networked drones caused them to discount the place of commercially-available and easily weaponized drones, as well as tactical drones, on the modern battlefield, especially used by non-state actors. But this oversight does not mean that non-state actors acquire drones for the same reasons.

Indeed, Hamas’s acquisition of drones shows that many factors shape groups’ adoption of a drone program. Also, Hamas’s limited use of drones, coupled with Israel’s inability to initially interdict them, does not constitute a new model of drone warfare. Rather, this is an empirical claim that requires more testing.

Thus, we need longitudinal data to determine if, and to what degree, Hamas “is pioneering a new combined arms model with commercial drones that is unusual for terrorist organizations,” as Chávez and Swed argue.

About the Authors

LTC Paul Lushenko is the Director of Special Operations and a Faculty Instructor in the U.S. Army War College’s Department of Military Strategy, Planning, and Operations. He earned his Ph.D. and M.A. in International Relations from Cornell University. He also holds an M.A. in Defense and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College, an M.A. in International Relations and a Master of Diplomacy from The Australian National University, and a B.S. from the U.S. Military Academy. 

Paul is a Council on Foreign Relations Term Member, Adjunct Research Lecturer at Charles Sturt University, and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at Cornell University’s Tech Policy Institute. He is the co-editor of Drones and Global Order: Implications of Remote Warfare for International Society (Routledge 2022), which is the first book to systematically study the implications of drone warfare on global politics, and has a book forthcoming on the public’s perceptions of legitimate drone strikes. Follow him on Twitter @LushenkoPaul.

Keith Carter is an Associate Professor in the U.S. Navy War College at the Naval Postgraduate School. Keith is a retired infantry officer who earned his PhD in International Relations from the University of Pennsylvania and a MS in Defense Analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School. He is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at Cornell University’s Tech Policy Institute.


The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official guidance or position of the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, or any other part of the Department of Defense (DoD), or the U.S. Government.  The appearance of external hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the DoD of the linked websites, or the information products or services contained therein. 

The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect my views, those of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University. See also here. 

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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