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(photo credit: Yaakov Katz)
Lt. G. was startled awake by an alarm at squadron headquarters in the Palmahim Air Force base north of Ashdod. It was July 12. Hours earlier, Hizbullah guerrillas had kidnapped two IDF reservists in a cross-border attack in the North. Entering the squadron's small operations room, Lt. G. was briefed on the latest developments including the massive bombardment of Katyusha rockets on northern Israel.
"Go hunting," was the order Lt. G. received together with the rest of the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) operators from Lt.-Col. U., commander of the squadron, the IAF's first UAV unit. "Katyushas are falling throughout northern Israel and it is your job to locate the launchers."
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Lt. G. scrambled over to the UAV operator room - a small caravan adjacent to Palmahim's main runway and next to the UAV hangars - and took up his position alongside a decoder, responsible for deciphering the images broadcast by the UAV's high-powered telescopic camera. The UAV took off and Lt. G. seized control of the Searcher Mark II aircraft and set coordinates for Lebanon.
Since that initial flight on July 12 - the day war erupted in Lebanon - Lt. G. clocked in close to 300 hours of UAV flight time over Lebanon.
In total, the several dozen UAV operators in the squadron flew for over 5,000 hours above Lebanon finding dozens of rocket launchers and contributing significantly to the war effort.
Located in the city-size Palmahim IAF base, the squadron sits along the runway in a tiny one-floor office building, filled in the middle by a shady courtyard. A few hundred meters away lies the UAV hangars and the noisy operator caravans, filled with loud super-size computers and a blasting air conditioning.
Established in 1971, the squadron first operated UAVs during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The first aircraft used by the squadron was a launched missile armed with a stills camera that took pictures behind enemy lines and parachuted back into Israel. The film in the camera was collected, developed and taken for decoding, a process that took between five to six hours - meaning that the intelligence was not in "real time."
But technology continued to improve.
By Israel's next major war in 1982, the squadron was already operating UAVs that were capable of transmitting real-time images back to headquarters. Today, the squadron operates the Searcher Mk. II manufactured by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), and is in the process of laying infrastructure ahead of the scheduled arrival of the newly-developed IAI-made Heron UAV, capable of more airtime and of carrying a larger and heavier payload than the Searcher.
While the Searcher is able to take to the skies for 12 hours straight, the Heron can remain in the air for two days without refueling. The Heron can also fly at altitudes of 30,000 feet, making it a difficult target for standard anti-aircraft weapons. It has the ability to carry a 250 kg payload, in comparison to the Searcher's 100 kg.
According to foreign reports, the IAF is scheduled to receive a total of eight within the next year.
While "Katyusha hunting" was the major part of their work, the UAV operators also played a key role in the ground operations by accompanying infantry units and serving as their "eyes from above." The UAVs were also used to patrol the Lebanese border with Syria to keep an eye out for weapon convoys on their way to Hizbullah. The UAVS, Lt.-Col. U. said, are still being flown over Lebanon and are conducting a wide range of missions.
BUT ALONGSIDE its many successes during the war, the IAF is aware that there is room for improvement within its UAV array.
A lesson learned from this war involves the training of UAV operators such as Lt. G. Most of the operators are officers who were disqualified before the final segment of the prestigious pilot's course. Due to the intensive day-to-day operations in the Gaza Strip (including what have become routine targeted killings), the IAF focused most of its training for new operators in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
The training in Lebanon was minimal at most, sidelined due to operational constraints, admitted Lt.-Col. U.
"It is true that we did not train in Lebanon," he said, explaining that the squadron was preoccupied with "catching suicide bombers in Gaza and preventing their infiltration into Israeli cities."
The lack of familiarity before the war with the rocky and hilly Lebanese terrain, Lt.-Col. U. admitted, could have played a role in the difficulty the IAF encountered in locating short-range Katyusha launchers in the first week of the war. That difficulty forced the UAV operators to learn the mission on the job.
They adapted quickly.
"My first flight was like searching for a needle in a haystack," recalled Lt. G, standing next to the Searcher plane as it rests in the Palmahim hanger. "They told us Hizbullah was firing Katyushas and we needed to fly over the fields and look for the launchers."
But that didn't happen right away. While there were many successes, there were also many cases, Lt. G. said, that the UAV operators only discovered the rocket launchers after the Katyushas were fired and on their way into Israel.
"There is nothing more frustrating than spotting the launching of the rockets and not being able to do anything," he said.
But the frustration quickly turned into satisfaction after the war entered its second week and the UAV operators began to successfully spot rocket launchers and understand the tactics of the Hizbullah guerrillas who hid and operated them.
Once spotted, mission control would forward the coordinates of the launcher back to the IAF command post in Tel Aviv. From there they would be passed to one of many fighter jets or attack helicopters hovering over Lebanon around the clock during the month-long war. The launcher would then be destroyed.
Lt.-Col. U. defends his squadron and the IAF against criticism of the IAF's ineffectiveness.
"The Americans did not succeed in finding even one launcher during the first Gulf War," he said. "We, however, knocked out most of their medium- and long-range rockets... not to mention the large number of short-range launchers that were also destroyed."
IN ADDITION to the Searcher, the IAF also flies Elbit System's Hermes 450, which according to Aviation Weekis operated by the squadron. According to the magazine, the Hermes and possibly even the Heron are capable of carrying and launching air-to-surface missiles. The Rafael Armaments Development Authority has developed the Spike-ER (extended range) missile, according to the report, which is capable of being fitted onto a UAV and flown into a target by the operator or as a fire-and-forget system.
The future arrival of the Heron also signals a new "long-range" era for Israel's UAVs. With a wingspan of 17 meters, and a quiet four-stroke engine, according to Yonaton Gershony, a Program Manager at IAI's subsidiary Elta Systems, the Heron can also be equipped with a satellite communication system that allows it to be controlled from anywhere in the world.
During the war, the Searcher - with a communications range of 100-200 kilometers - were flown from control rooms at Palmahim base near Ashdod. In case of a flight deeper into Lebanon and out of communication range from Palmahim, the IAF also keeps UAV control booths in the North.
NOW WITH the war in Lebanon over, Lt.-Col. U. and his men are also turning their attention back to Gaza, conducting surveillance missions, searching for wanted Palestinian terrorists and assisting fighter jets in assassinating them.
The job of the UAV operator, explains Lt. G. from his seat in the UAV hanger, is essential in preventing diplomatic crises and saving innocent lives.
According to Lt. G., the number of cancelled missions heavily outweighs the number of final executions.
"We keep an eye on the targets as the fighter jets get ready to drop the bombs," he explains. "But sometimes things get in the way - like children - and it is our job to spot them and to ensure that the commanders get the information so they can decide if they want to call off the mission."
The equation, Lt. G. says, is quite simple: "A tactical error equals a diplomatic crisis." Like all of the UAV operators, Lt. G. knows the layout and the streets of the Gaza Strip by heart. Aware that the IAF operates UAVs over their heads, the Palestinians have learned to fight back by covering entire streets with sheets so the UAV can't see through, or by lighting smoky fires to conceal their terror activity.
"The enemy knows our weaknesses and tries to take advantage of them," he says.
While mistakes can lead to diplomatic disasters, Lt.-Col. U. is more concerned about the moral consequences of botched missions. That is why before every mission in the squadron, the UAV operators are given a short briefing on ethics and morals.
One last-minute lucky save took place recently: A UAV operator realized that a target who had appeared to be a Palestinian holding a shoulder-to-air missile, was actually a cameraman holding a camera.
"We do everything to make sure the target will be attacked and no one else," he says. "There are of course diplomatic consequences [of mistakes], but what is more important is that my men and I can go home and sleep at night with a clear conscience that we are doing everything we can to prevent hurting innocent people."
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