IDF uses attack drones, army announces after years of censorship

The IDF never publicly disclosed the use of drones, and Israelis who attempted to publish reports were blocked by the censor.

A drone is seen ahead of the international "BLUE GUARDIAN" drone drill held in Israel. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
A drone is seen ahead of the international "BLUE GUARDIAN" drone drill held in Israel.
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

After years of banning journalists from reporting that Israel uses armed drones to strike targets, the IDF’s Military Censor has finally allowed publishing what many already knew.

“It was found that there was no impediment in publishing the IDF’s use of strike UAVs as part of its operational activities,” the censor said in a message on Wednesday evening.

The international press has reported the Israel Air Force’s use of attack drones for at least the past 20 years, and it has been extensively documented in US diplomatic cables as well as at international air shows. The IDF, however, never publicly disclosed the use of such platforms, and Israeli journalists who attempted to publish anything were blocked by the censor.

In 1991, Israel decided to operate according to the guidelines of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a multinational and informal political understanding among 35 countries aimed at limiting the proliferation of missiles and missile technology.

Armed drones would fall into that category, and Israel does not want questions about what it does. When asked about the use of armed drones or the sale of armed drones, the answer was always the same from Israeli officials: a shrug, a smile – and no comment.

A drone is seen ahead of the international ''BLUE GUARDIAN'' drone drill held in Israel. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)A drone is seen ahead of the international ''BLUE GUARDIAN'' drone drill held in Israel. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
 

If Israel admitted to having armed drones, then exporting them would fall under the restrictions imposed by the MTCR. Ambiguity provides flexibility, and the ability for Israel to maneuver between its own alleged use of armed drones and sales to other countries.

Drones use the Israeli military

Over the past decade, the IAF’s use of drones has drastically increased, with almost every operation seeing these devices being used.

IAF drone squadrons fly about 80% of all IAF flight hours. Four drone squadrons are based at Palmahim Air Force Base just south of Tel Aviv, where 70% of all IAF flight hours take off.

The drones flown by the IAF can be deployed on a large range of missions such as surveillance of targets in enemy countries, tracking weapons smuggling, and, according to foreign sources, destroying enemy targets that pose an imminent threat to the home front.

Drones played a significant part in Operation Guardian of the Walls in May, with most of them taking off from Palmahim Air Force Base. According to data released by the IDF, 643 missions were carried out by drones for a total of 132.6 flight hours during the 11 days of war with terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip.

There are hundreds of drones in IAF hangars across the country, from commercial DJI drones to the Skylarks reconnaissance drones (which are notorious for crashing in Gaza or in the north) to the attack drones, such as the Zik (Hermes 450), the Shoval (Heron 900) and the Eitan (Heron TP).

Types of Israeli drones

There are dozens of drones in IAF hangers across the country, from commercial DJI drones to the Skylarks (which are notorious for crashing in Gaza or in Lebanon) to the larger Shoval, known across the world as Heron.

The Shoval can fly for 45 hours at a time, at up to 35,000 feet. With an operational range limited only by its fuel availability, the remotely piloted aircraft has an operational range of over 1,000 kilometers, which allows it to perform flying reconnaissance and to provide support in combat missions.

Equipped with satellite data links and electro-optical infrared sensors, the Heron 1 can provide various kinds of reconnaissance services to ground forces. It can track down explosives from the air, and it is capable of destroying enemy targets with its weapons systems.

The Eitan, which saw combat action during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 even before it was formally absorbed by the IAF, was used extensively during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014 along with the Shoval.

Equipped with satellite data link and electro-optical infrared sensors, the Eitan can provide reconnaissance to ground forces in combat situations, and is able to create movement profiles and attack targets.

IAF soldiers are seen alongside a drone ahead of the international ''BLUE GUARDIAN'' drone drill. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)IAF soldiers are seen alongside a drone ahead of the international ''BLUE GUARDIAN'' drone drill. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

The Eitan can fly up to 7,500 km at significantly high altitudes while relaying precise information. This makes it a likely option in the event that Israel decides to carry out strikes against targets in enemy countries.