SDE DOV AIR FORCE BASE, TEL AVIV – While more and more armies around the world are using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, for intelligence gathering, Israel, itself a leader in drone technology and a leading source of UAVs to other countries, continues to use manned aircraft for many of its missions.
“Drones are susceptible to wind, rain and clouds but manned flights can operate in all weather,” Captain Omri, 27, the “Flying Camel Squadron” operations officer told The Media Line. “Manned vehicles can fly four times as fast as drones, and people can provide the best visual intelligence.” According to army security regulations, his last name cannot be used.
Flying Camel, the squadron responsible for intelligence operations, is the nation’s oldest, formed in 1947, even before the creation of the state of Israel.
At a briefing at the Sde Dov Air Force base in Tel Aviv, Omri, with his sunglasses pushed up on his head, showed video demonstrating the squadron’s successful intelligence gathering. In one film taken one year ago, Israeli fighter jets drop small bombs on homes in the Gaza Strip to encourage civilians to leave the area. Small black figures are seen running out of the buildings. Only then does the bomber attack the target, believed to be a Palestinian arms factory.
Another video shows Israel’s assassination of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari last November. Israel says Jabari was behind the 2006 abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit who was freed in a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas more than five years after being taken captive.
The video shows Jabari’s car driving down a main street in Gaza with pedestrians and other traffic. Only once the car turns off onto a side street does the attack that kills Jabari and his son occur.
“We tracked Jabari for eight years,” Omri says. “And an hour before we struck we were about to carry out the attack, but then we saw a lot of civilians in the area and we aborted. We are doing everything possible to minimize civilian casualties.”
Avoiding what is euphemistically called “collateral damage” is especially difficult in the densely populated Gaza Strip, where 1.5 million Palestinians live in an area of 139 square miles. Israeli officials say that the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist organizations have purposely planted rocket launchers in the midst of civilian areas in order to maximize civilian casualties when Israeli preventative strikes or reprisals take place.
Omri says the manned reconnaissance flights have contributed significantly to the lessening of civilian casualties. In Operation Cast Lead that began in December 2008, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, Israeli security forces killed 1,387 Palestinians during the course of the three-week operation. Of these, 773 were not involved in the fighting, including 320 minors and 109 women over the age of 18. Palestinians killed 9 Israelis during the operation.
In contrast, during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, 167 Palestinians, including 87 civilians were killed. According to B'tselem, 69 were defined as “combatants” and 11 could not be identified as combatant or civilian. Omri says that out of the 1,500 targets in Gaza that Israel attacked during the fighting, 700 were cleared by his squadron after ensuring that there were no civilians in the area.
The intelligence-gathering aircraft itself, nicknamed “Hummingbird” by the squadron, is a Beechcraft 11-seater plane manufactured in Wichita, Kansas. Once the planes arrive in Israel they are equipped with an advanced multi-sensor payload system and state-of-the-art electro-optic systems. Inside the aircraft, the mission commander sits in the back. In front of him are two “scouts” responsible for gathering the intelligence. Their computer screens show the feed from the cameras – one a close-up view and one a wider view.
“Some of the aerial scouts are from the air force and others are from the intelligence corps,” Omri said. “They are in charge of analyzing and understanding what we are looking at.”
The planes are used to monitor both Gaza and southern Lebanon. Although they do not cross into Lebanese airspace, Omri says they can monitor several miles across the border.
Since the Pillar of Defense Operation last year, the number of rockets fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip has been drastically reduced.
“Hamas has an interest in keeping the border with Israel calm and they are doing their utmost to curb the radical Salafis,” Guy Bechor, the director of the Middle East program at IDC, the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, told The Media Line. “Hamas has a so-called country with a civilian population to take care of. They need to continue to receive food aid from Israel and want the situation to remain stable.”
Along with its manned aerial flights, Israel operates a network of unmanned drones, which are cheaper to operate and can remain airborne for up to 36-hours. Israel’s army is currently undertaking budget cuts and it is likely that the percentage of drone flights, today about 50 percent, will increase.
“I can confirm that a reduced budget is one of the primary factors taken into account when we contemplate force building. For this reason, as well as others, over the years there has been a constant increase in the amount of unmanned flight hours,” Israeli army spokesman Captain Eytan Buchman told The Media Line. “It is also important to bear in mind that in many instances, these flights do not necessarily replace manned flights. As more tools and technologies are implemented in the military, the scope and depth of missions the aircraft are capable of performing increases as well.”
Yet, Omri says drones will never be able to completely replace manned intelligence reconnaissance.
“The bigger the plane, the heavier the equipment, and the better the resolution details so our optic systems are better than the drones,” Omri said. “In addition, when you send a plane, it’s autonomous. I don’t need radio communication, or any communication with the crew on the ground.”
For more stories from The Media Line go to www.themedialine.org