Lebanon’s militant Shia group, Hizbullah, has constructed an airstrip in the northern Bekaa Valley for its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), an analysis of satellite images suggests.
Located in a remote and sparsely populated area 10 km south of the town of Hermel and 18 km west of the Syrian border, the airstrip was built sometime between 27 February 2013 and 19 June 2014, according to imagery that recently became publicly available on Google Earth.
It consists of a single unpaved strip with a length of 670 m and width of 20 m. 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 short length of the runway suggests the facility is not intended to smuggle in weapons shipments from Syria or Iran as it is too short for nearly all the transport aircraft used by the air forces of those countries. One exception could be the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC’s) An-74T-200 short take-off transports, but landing one with a useful load on a 670 m strip in the mountains would be considered dangerous by most operators.
An alternative explanation is that the runway was built for Iranian-made UAVs, 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.
Hizbullah sources have confirmed to IHS Jane’s that the organisation is using UAVs to support operations against rebel forces in Syria, particularly over the mountainous Qalamoun region on Lebanon’s eastern border.
An antenna is located on a hill 430 m south of the strip and linked by a track. While this looks like a standard Lebanese mobile telephone tower, it could potentially be used to extend the range of a UAV ground control station.
There are six small utility buildings next to the strip, but none are large enough to accommodate a UAV the size of an Ababil-3, which has a wingspan of around 7 m. However, there is a facility constructed in a valley 2.5 km west of the airstrip that includes two utility buildings large enough to house UAVs.
The site, which is guarded by a checkpoint and swing gate, resembles other Hizbullah facilities scattered around the Bekaa Valley.
Hizbullah has operated UAVs from Lebanese airspace since at least 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.
Hizbullah said it was responsible for the UAV that was shot down over southern Israel on 6 October 2012. It said it used an Iranian-made aircraft that it had designated as the Ayoub for the incursion.
Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the IRGC Aerospace Forces, subsequently 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 Saudi Al-Watan newspaper claimed in March 2014 that Hizbullah had built a “military airport” for its UAVs in the Bekaa Valley. Lebanese media reports erroneously claimed the location was at Iaat in the central Bekaa Valley, apparently mistaking a long-abandoned Second World War-era Royal Air Force airfield for the Hizbullah facility