It was the middle of January 2009, and IDF ground forces were pushing deep into
the Gaza Strip as Operation Cast Lead – aimed at weakening Hamas – was nearing
Concrete intelligence reportedly obtained by the Mossad several
days earlier indicated that a ship carrying a number of containers packed with
advanced Iranian weaponry had docked in Port Sudan, on the Red Sea. The
containers, the Mossad’s sources said, were being loaded onto the backs of
trucks for the long drive north to the tunnels underneath the Egypt-Gaza
Different options were considered for how to deal with the
convoy, which the Mossad had been tipped off was carrying 120 tons of weaponry
including Iranian Fajr-5 artillery rockets, capable of striking Tel Aviv, a
capability Hamas did not have at the time. Some in the defense establishment
proposed an airstrike against the convoy to prevent the rockets from reaching
the Gaza Strip.
Others warned that with Israel already under major
international criticism for the rising death toll and extensive devastation in
Gaza, news of an Israeli strike in another country would not help and could even
damage Israeli efforts on the diplomatic front.
The final decision was
likely brought before prime minister Ehud Olmert and defense minister Ehud Barak
who, after a short debate, gave the green light to attack the convoy of 17
trucks. The timing was crucial since once the trucks crossed into Egypt everyone
knew that Israel would not be able to attack. It had to be done while the trucks
were still inside Sudan.
The question now was how to carry out the
strike. Sending fighter jets to Sudan was risky. What would happen if there was
a malfunction in one of the planes or one was detected by the Egyptian or Saudi
air forces, which also operate over the Red Sea, the likely flight route? The
entire mission would be jeopardized.
Another concern was what would
happen if the fighter jets showed up too early. They wouldn’t be able to stay in
Sudanese airspace forever and would be limited by the amount of fuel they could
The decision ultimately taken by Israel Air Force (IAF) commander
Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan was to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also
referred to as drones, due to their ability to hover for extended periods of
time over an area of operations like the vast Sudanese desert, where they could
just sit and wait for the convoy to show up.
“When you attack a fixed
target, especially a big one, you are better off using jet aircraft. But with a
moving target with no definite time for the move, UAVs are best, as they can
hover extremely high and remain unseen until the target is on the move,” an
Israeli security source was quoted by one British paper after the
The UAVs chosen for the operation were the Heron TP – Israel’s
largest drone – to provide surveillance of the area of operations and the Hermes
450, Israel’s main attack drone.
The night of the bombing, there were
some clouds but for the most part the skies were clear, like most mid-January
nights in Sudan. As the smugglers, some Sudanese and some Palestinian, made
their way through the vast desert, the last thing on their minds was that
Israeli drones were already tracking them. As the missiles streaked to their
targets it was already too late. Fifty smugglers were reportedly killed and all
of the trucks were destroyed.
This is the alleged story – based on
foreign press reports – of one of Israel’s more monumental airstrikes in recent
But like other covert operations attributed to Israel, here too,
the country has never claimed responsibility. It does however shed some light on
the growing role UAVs – ranging in size and shape – are playing in Israel’s wars
and operations, raising questions not only about the future of the technology
but also of the morality behind its use on the battlefield.
first experience with unmanned aircraft was in 1969 during the War of
At the time, Israel desperately needed intelligence on
Egyptian military movements on the other side of the Suez Canal. A team from
Military Intelligence came up with an idea. It purchased a number of
remote-control planes, used masking tape to attach an automatic stills camera
and sent it over the canal to snap some photos.
“We had to use binoculars
to track the small planes, and once in a while we would lose sight of them,”
recalled Haim Eshed, former head of the Defense Ministry’s Space Division and a
member of the team that flew the remote-control planes in the
“When they landed, we took the camera, sent the film to be
developed and then studied the pictures.”
Not everyone believed in the
UAVs and Eshed – who served at the time as head of MI’s Research and Development
Division – succeeded in moving the project over to the Defense Ministry. There
it was taken over by MAFAT, the ministry’s R&D directorate.
the IAF established a UAV squadron following the arrival of the Firebee, an
American-made UAV, which was put to use mostly along the Suez Canal to track
Egyptian surface-to-air missile SAM systems.
It was launched like a
missile and landed with a parachute.
Israel’s dramatic leap in the field
of UAVs came in 1979 with the arrival of the Scout, the first drone developed by
Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), which was used extensively during the First
Lebanon War in 1982.
One memorable operation was when a Scout operator
spotted an SA-8 SAM system hidden under a tree in Syria. The operator got
through to a nearby Phantom pilot and directed him to the target, which was
immediately bombed and destroyed. In 1992, the Scout participated in the
airstrike which killed Sheikh Abbas al-Musawi, Hezbollah’s leader at the time,
in southern Lebanon. The UAV was used to locate the vehicle and to report the
results of the strike back to Israel.
“This was the big breakthrough,” a
top official in the Defense Ministry’s UAV directorate said. “The IAF operated a
single squadron at the time but everyone in the IDF benefited from its
operations and people began to understand the untapped potential.”
years since, the IAF has used and retired a number of additional UAV systems,
but unlike its larger manned platforms – fighter jets, attack helicopters and
transport aircraft – the UAVs are strictly blue-andwhite, developed and
manufactured by Israeli companies such as IAI, Elbit Systems and
A demonstration of Israel’s superior technological
capabilities was evident in 2010 when Israeli companies sold $1 billion worth of
UAVs and associated equipment around the world and five countries – Germany,
Australia, Spain, France and Canada – were flying Israelimade drones in
Further proof was provided in August when France selected
IAI’s Heron TP – Israel’s largest UAV with a wingspan of 26 meters, like a
Boeing 737 – over America’s Predator B.
But what is the secret to
Israel’s success? “There are three explanations for Israel’s success in becoming
a world leader in development and production of UAVs,” explained a top official
from MAFAT. “We have unbelievable people and innovation, combat experience that
helps us understand what we need and immediate operational use since we are
always in a conflict which allows us to perfect our systems.”
a young engineer at IAI’s Malat Division which develops and manufactures UAVs,
encapsulates these three elements.
Wolff enlisted in the IDF in the early
1990s and served in the elite Maglan Unit for a number of years, attaining the
rank of captain.
After his discharge, he studied engineering and was then
hired by IAI. A number of years ago, Wolff became a development team
One day, Wolff and his team met at a coffee shop near IAI
headquarters – located next to Ben- Gurion International Airport – for one of
their regular brainstorming sessions.
As the former commander in Maglan,
Wolff knew what he would have liked to have when leading his troops on
operations inside densely populated Palestinian and Lebanese cities and
“We started discussing the possibility of creating a
lightweight UAV which can be taken into the field, be quickly unpacked and be
capable of taking off and landing vertically without the need for a runway,” he
The idea was quickly sketched on some scrap paper at the coffee
shop, and a few days later Wolff approached Arnold Nathan, director of IAI’s
R&D engineering division, who listened to the proposal and decided to
allocate $30,000 for its continued development.
The investment paid off
and about two years later, in October 2010, the government- owned company
unveiled the Panther, its first tilt-rotor UAV, which can hover over targets and
vertically take off and land in the battlefield.
Weighing about 65 kg.,
the Panther is fitted with three small electric motors and can stay airborne at
10,000 feet for six hours. A smaller version, called the Mini Panther, weighs a
mere 12 kg. and can stay airborne for approximately two hours.
general, our ideas come from a number of sources,” Wolff explains. “We closely
follow different inventions on the Internet to see if they are applicable, we
are in close contact with the defense establishment to understand the IDF’s
needs, and we also draw on our own experience as soldiers and active
ALONGSIDE THE UAV squadron, the IDF and IAF have a number of
additional squadrons and units that operate UAVs. The UAV squadron uses the
Heron 1 UAV, while another IAF squadron uses the Hermes 450, Israel’s primary
attack drone according to foreign reports and similar to the Predator, which is
used extensively by the US in targeted killings in Pakistan and
The IAF is now planning the establishment of an additional
UAV squadron by the end of 2012 which will incorporate the Heron 1 and the
Hermes 900, a larger version of the Hermes 450 with the ability to carry larger
In the ground forces, drones are used under the Sky Rider
Program, which saw the delivery of Elbit’s Skylark 1 to IDF battalions in 2010
as part of an effort to provide commanders with quick over-the-hill intelligence
without being dependent on the IAF. The Defense Ministry is now evaluating the
Skylark II as a drone for brigade commanders.
At the top level, called
HALE (high altitude long endurance), the IAF has purchased a number of Heron TP
UAVs from IAI which have the ability to stay airborne for days at a time and
which for that reason have become known in Israel as “the drone that can reach
Iran.” The squadron that is planned to operate the Heron TP is slated to become
operational by the end of 2011.
“This UAV puts us at a new level when it
comes to gathering intelligence,” a senior IAF officer explained.
its size it can carry multiple payloads and conduct a wide variety of missions
at the same time.”
The Israeli genius is not just in the development of
the drone itself but just as importantly in the payloads it carries and the
systems that operate it. IAI and Elbit, for example, have made names for
themselves for developing autonomous takeoff and landing systems. All it takes
is four buttons to get the Heron TP, which is as wide as a Boeing 737, turned on
and off the ground.
The missions a drone can carry out range from regular
surveillance to airstrikes. In Gaza, for example, the Palestinians have given
the drones the nickname Zanana, for the buzzing sounds they make as they fly
over the Hamas-controlled territory.
“Drones are best for what are known
as ‘3D’ missions – dull, dirty and dangerous,” the top IAF officer
“Its operation costs are less than a manned aircraft, people are
not put in danger and it can sometimes even do a better job.”
is in the Navy, which currently uses helicopters to fly ahead of ships and help
it build a picture of the sea out of range of what the ship-based radars can
see. Each helicopter has a crew of at least three officers who can sometimes sit
for hours going back and forth over an ocean.
“Why put a crew’s life in
danger on missions that are dull and boring when the same mission can be done by
a UAV,” a defense official said.
For that reason, the navy has been
conducting a number of experiments with different long-range UAVs with the aim
of finding one that can take off from a ship and land there as well.
FUTURE world of UAVs is inside the small caravans at the Palmahim Air Force Base
where young male and female officers in jumpsuits sit in front of consoles lined
with large TV screens watching the surveillance footage stream in from the drone
they are moving with the nearby joystick.
These small and mobile command
caravans put the UAV operator at a safe distance from the mission, wherever it
might be – over the Gaza Strip or in Lebanon, tracking Hamas and Hezbollah arms
The numbers are already overwhelming, with the IAF recording a
dramatic increase of in-flight hours in the past decade. Today, UAVs make up
around a third of the IAF’s overall annual flight hours. It also produces a
couple hundred hours of visual intelligence (VISINT) on a daily basis which then
have to be processed and catalogued.
In the IAF there is no question that
while UAVs have made a tremendous leap in the past 20 years, it is just the
beginning. At the force’s recent “2030 Workshop,” IAF commander Nehushtan spoke
of a future when the air force’s fleet will consist just of the stealth F-35
Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and UAVs.
“No one would have thought 20 years
ago that we would be where we are today, and it is difficult to accurately
predict where we will be in another 20 years,” a senior defense official from
MAFAT said, adding with a smile: “Ultimately, the sky is the limit.” ■