Israel Air Force unmanned aerial vehicle.
(photo credit: ISRAEL AIR FORCE MAGAZINE)
The air force’s drone training center at the Palmahim base, south of Rishon Lezion, is growing rapidly and holding more annual courses than before, to meet the IDF’s rising demand for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the center’s commander told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
The commander, a lieutenant- colonel who cannot be named, spoke days after the training center completed a six-month drone operator course, and days before it begins a new one. “The size and length of this course are significant, due to the increase in drone squadron sizes,” he said.
“We provide a service, not just to the air force, but to every unit in the IDF, and to other security elements,” the commander added.
Since its establishment 10 years ago, the school has gone from training a small number of operators per year to dozens, who then head out to squadrons to perform vital functions in intelligence gathering and other fields, over many hostile areas.
“The training has changed in line with the rapidly changing operational needs. Within the IAF, there are growing numbers of drone squadrons, and the school has grown in size,” the commander said.
“This is a global trend. We know how to identify this. Increasing numbers of missions are going from the manned flight to the unmanned world. This influences our courses. We run more courses per year. The world of UAVs is incredible, and this is just the start. If 10 years ago, UAVs carried out certain missions, today, they carry out many missions, and they are more varied. I cannot go into detail,” the commander said.
Drones can spend more time in the air than manned aerial platforms.
They are cheaper to run, and there is no risk to the lives of operators, which the school’s commander said is “the most significant” factor. It is these capabilities, and others, that are behind the drone’s rising prominence in the military.
“The operators stay in a secure environment, enabling us to take the right decisions during missions. This makes it more attractive to pass on missions to the unmanned world. This trend will only increase,” he said. The operators are not physically in the battlefield, but they are very much in the thick of things mentally, the commander stressed. That requires unique training.
“They are exposed to difficult sights of combat. They see what the platform sees, and often, not from a high altitude. They are fully connected to the battlefield. The mental training is very important,” he said.
During training, one instructor is assigned to every two cadets. Cadets spend many hours on simulator, and then begin real flights, first over open areas, then over built-up regions. During flights, each cadet is overseen by an instructor. Their intensive routine is made up of pre-flight briefings, two sorties a day, and a debriefing.
Drones have played a key part in all of Israel’s campaigns since the Second Lebanon War of 2006. Veteran officers who become instructors bring along their experience to the school.
After completing the training, cadets “are quickly exposed to difficult operational activity. They have to be mentally prepared for that. Those who don’t meet our standards don’t finish the course,” the commander said. “Within a year, they are going to be mission commanders. They have to meet the standard.”
Drone operator cadets, all of whom originally enlisted in fighter pilot courses, will go on to serve for at least five years in squadrons. “After three years they will reach a maximal level of proficiency,” the school commander said.
The commander of the course, a captain who also cannot be named, told the Post about the shaky start to the latest program.
Weeks after it began, the 50-day war with Hamas in Gaza erupted. “We faced a dilemma: Do we continue, or stop the program? We ended up sending instructors to their operational units, as all of them serve in squadrons. They then continued to instruct during the conflict, under a lot of pressure and mental burden. But we could not delay the course. We cannot disrupt the buildup of our military force.”