On any given night, a Hofit (“stint”) plane might fly over the Israel-Lebanon border, as a team of intelligence scouts on board pours over images from the ground, snapping high quality photographs and searching for Hezbollah activities.
The scouts will send their data back to Military Intelligence, which will proceed to analyze the visual intelligence, and build up a database of targets that will be activated in the next clash with Hezbollah.
Down south, meanwhile, over the Gaza Strip, a Tzofit (“honey sucker”) plane could have just been scrambled following a Palestinian rocket attack on a southern Israeli city. The intelligence scouts in that plane will be tasked with “incriminating” a target, making sure that it is linked to a terror organization, “cleaning” it – confirming that there are no noncombatants in the vicinity – and broadcasting the image to a variety of possible “customers,” from fighter jets en route to a bombing run or a battalion commander on the ground.
This is the world of the Israel Air Force’s Squadron 100, the oldest air force unit, which predates the founding of the state and which today clocks more flight hours than any other squadron.
Sitting in his squadron headquarters office at Sde Dov airport in Tel Aviv, Lt.-Col. Yoav (last name withheld), commander of the squadron, recounted the unit’s history with pride, speaking of how men in light aircraft carried out intelligence with the naked eye and even, in some instances, took an active part in battles for Israel’s independence in 1948, hurling bombs down at invading Arab army convoys.
The squadron has taken part in every one of Israel’s wars. Today, it rests on two pillars. The first, the Tzofit-type aircraft, enables what the IDF calls a swift “circle of fire,” a reference to a process that begins with the identification of enemy target in real time, and ends with the target being struck.
The Tzofit, packed with highly advanced electro- optic surveillance, is essentially an airborne observation post, recording video images, Yoav said, with long-range surveillance capabilities. Unlike drones that view targets vertically, looking down from above, this plane can observe ground targets far away, from a horizontal angle.
“We don’t always have to be over the target,” Yoav explained. That fact, plus the plane’s high altitude, helps it stay out of range of surface-to-air missiles.
“Since Operation Defensive Shield [the IDF’s 2002 large-scale operation designed to smash terror cells in the West Bank], the importance of visual intelligence has been on the rise continuously,” Yoav said.
The squadron accompanies army forces in Judea and Samaria on counter-terrorism raids, or on the Gaza border. It will collect information on all possible targets.
“The place of the Tzofit in the visual intelligence world is very significant,” he added. Today, intelligence scouts on board the Tzofit can broadcast intelligence directly to a Ground Forces battalion commander preparing to move into a sector.
The place of the Hofit, which gathers still, high quality photographs, is no less important.
This plane and its crew gather daily intelligence for future conflicts, building a long list of targets.
“To prepare correctly for the next war, you have to spend years gathering intelligence,” Yoav said. “It’s a Sisyphean task.”
“Is Hezbollah doing something unusual? Decision makers receive our visual intelligence. We send them the pictures. In some cases, drones take over from us after we’re done,” he added.
The squadron is unusual due to its tight knit army – air force cooperation, reflected in the predominance of intermixed blue and green uniforms on base. Yoav said he has grown so accustomed to this cooperation that the color of the uniform “has become transparent.”
“This cross-force cooperation is one of the lessons of the Second Lebanon War,” he explained. “We’re an intelligence factory,” he added. “We’re in an operation at any given moment. A factory has [to] be managed. We get everywhere we need to get to.”
In the past, the squadron has flown to Crete for joint exercises with the Hellenic Air Force. The flight distance is about 1,000 kilometers each way, and the aircrafts did not have to refuel to make the journey. This holds obvious implications for their role in any Iran strike.
After a target is hit, intelligence scouts will often carry out a bomb damage assessment.
The longer one speaks with Yoav, the more it becomes clear that Squadron 100 is involved in every conceivable IDF operation.
“We are connected to everything happening in the Middle East,” he said. The commander recounts often reading media reports of events, and smiling to himself as he reflects on the gap between what is reported and what really occurred. “If something happens, we get involved,” he said.
Most flights will send back data to Military Intelligence’s 9900 Unit, a unit the IDF only admitted existed in 2013.
“We’re asked to check out various things. They plan our missions, and analyze our data. We’re the body that carries things out, the operational unit,” Yoav said.
“We work very hard. Our reservists give up a lot of their time. The language we speak here is the language of Zionism,” he added.
At the IAF’s Sde Dov air base, a pilot and three intelligence scouts sit around a table, discussing their experiences in this remarkable squadron. None can be identified in full for their safety.
Moshe, a pilot, said, “Our ‘clients’ can be anyone who needs to know something. That means the whole military.” He continued, “The IDF as an organization requires all types of visual intelligence. Our products are in high demand. Things get very busy here in terms of providing our products. We work around the clock, 24/7. The workload is crazy.”
Maria, a young woman who serves as a scout on board an aircraft, concurred. “The work is nonstop. We are scrambled night and day. There are no shifts here. We’re working all of the time. There’s an atmosphere of cooperation here. At some point, you can’t tell the pilots and scouts apart. Everyone is part of one crew.”
Guy, also a scout, added, “The ranks also lose their significance. Everyone’s equal on board the aircraft. That’s one of the best things here, there’s no hierarchy. New recruits, officers – we’re all together. There’s no difference.”
Those who serve in the squadron noted the vast demands made on reservists, who are expected to arrive for 120 days of service every year, or once a week.
The squadron’s members noted laughingly a certain competition with drone crews, but quickly went on to stress their advantages: The plane travels faster, has advanced technological means and airborne intelligence officers on board, and is less affected by storms or heavy cloud covers.
“We know how to analyze, in real time, in the air. We can work independently, or cooperate with fighter jets,” Guy said.
Moshe added, “We can get to places in time constraints that drones can’t, and that’s what you need for real time intelligence. We’re in direct contact with whoever needs our information.”
The crew members stressed the work they put in to ensure noncombatants were not harmed.
“Last week, there was an air force attack in Gaza. I scrambled to there to clean the targets,” a scout named Tom recalled. “I made sure there were no civilians there, and broadcast the picture of the target. The air force took it from there.”
There are no shortage of sorties that were aborted at the last minute after receiving warnings from Squadron 100 crews of sudden appearances of noncombatants on the scene.
Guy added, “The IAF has no wish to harm noncombatants, and tries as hard as it can to prevent this. During Operation Pillar of Defense [in November 2012], we flew daily over Gaza, and carried out massive cleaning of targets. We were making sure no one was there who should not have been.”