Israel's eyes - How the drone went from a toy to the IDF's greatest tool

Accuracy in IDF missions has increased over the years due to a number of factors – and none match the drone.

A SKYLARK drone is thrown by an IDF soldier during a military exercise in southern Israel in 2013 (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
A SKYLARK drone is thrown by an IDF soldier during a military exercise in southern Israel in 2013
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
In the fall of 1967, Israel made one of its greatest intelligence breakthroughs at the time – it received the first pictures of the new military positions the Egyptians had built on their side of the Suez Canal. Just a few months after the Six Day War had ended with Israel in control of the Sinai, the Golan and the West Bank, Egypt was again preparing for war.
The pictures had been taken by an Israeli spy operated by IDF Military Intelligence’s Unit 154, which – like the Mossad – handled agents sent behind enemy lines. The photographic operation was complicated and expensive and included Aman – the acronym for Military Intelligence – smuggling the camera across the border into Egypt.
When the film returned to Israel, the IDF was ecstatic. Finally, Aman had photos of Egyptian military positions. One showed a military bridge, the kind that could be used to move tanks and armored personnel carriers across the canal, and which Egypt had placed less than a couple of kilometers from the Suez Canal. It was clear what it meant. Egypt was preparing an invasion.
Sending the spy into Egypt was viewed as a last resort. When the Six Day War had ended, Egypt had erected a 30-foot-high dirt barrier along its bank of the Suez, making it impossible for Israel to see if its enemy was amassing tanks, artillery cannons or soldiers.
Israel needed to see what was happening. First, the air force tried to fly along the border but came under heavy missile fire from the new surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems Egypt had received from the Soviet Union. Next, the IDF sent “monkeys” – a military nickname for reconnaissance soldiers – who climbed poles, trees and anything else that was high enough to peer over the waterway.
When Egyptian snipers opened fire, the monkeys were out of business, so the IDF came up with a different idea: It took an old armored personnel carrier and installed a long expandable pole with a camera that could broadcast a live feed back to a screen inside the APC. The problem, as with the monkeys, was that the camera could only see what was right up along the water’s edge. Anything a bit further back was out of range.
A SOLDIER carries a drone during an IDF military exercise at the Shizafon base, north of the southern city of Eilat. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)A SOLDIER carries a drone during an IDF military exercise at the Shizafon base, north of the southern city of Eilat. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)
Maj. Shabtai Brill was at Aman headquarters the day the agent’s pictures returned. He watched his commanders react to the images smuggled across the border and couldn’t believe it was so difficult to see what was unfolding just across the canal, less than 300 meters away.
A veteran Aman officer, Brill had spent the years preceding the Six Day War as an intelligence collection officer in Unit 848, what would later morph into 8200, the IDF’s signal intelligence unit and Israel’s equivalent to the US National Security Agency. His father had immigrated to Israel from Europe in 1920, shortly after World War I had ended, and became a simple farmer in a small agricultural community near Tel Aviv. After Brill completed his military service, he had two options – stay in the IDF or move to the Foreign Ministry and pursue a career as a diplomat. He went to ask his father for advice.
“I moved to Israel to build this land,” the older Brill told his son. “Now that there is a state, it is still not safe and it needs to be protected.”
Shabtai got the hint and signed up for additional years of service. Keeping Israel safe was now his own personal mission.
On his drive home from Aman headquarters that night, Brill thought to himself that there had to be an easier way to gather intelligence on the Egyptian fortifications along the canal. Suddenly, he had what he later described as a “lightbulb moment” and came up with what seemed like the craziest idea – buy a toy airplane, attach a camera to its bottom and fly it over the border. He had recently seen a video of a Jewish boy in the US who had received a toy airplane as a bar mitzvah gift. He remembered that the planes came in different colors, were wireless and could be flown by remote control.
The idea seemed almost too good to be true. Easy, though, it wouldn’t be. At the time, toy airplanes were not even available in Israel. There was nowhere to get them. Brill took his idea to the air force, where he was certain the officers would be excited about a platform that could quietly fly across the border and keep pilots safe and out of the range of the Soviet SA-2 and SA-3 SAM systems deployed close to the Suez.
But they weren’t. Toy airplanes, the pilots told Brill, were just that – toys. While they expressed interest in unmanned aircraft, they had their eyes set on larger platforms that would be able to fly higher and faster than the kind of toy airplane Brill had seen in the movie.
BRILL DIDN’T give up. He knew how badly the IDF needed to see what was happening across the canal. It could be existential. He took the idea to his commander in Aman, and this time came prepared. After some research, he concluded that all he would need were three toy airplanes made by a company called Kraft, a few extra engines, and some spare tires and propellers. The total amount: $850.
The money, he explained, could be transferred to the Defense Ministry delegation in New York City and someone there could buy the supplies. While it sounded less like a military project and more like a game, Brill knew that all he needed to do was prove the concept. If he could, the IDF would take care of the rest.
By mid-1968, the supplies had finally arrived in Israel, shipped to the country in a diplomatic pouch to avoid any uncomfortable questions from customs officers in the US or Israel. Brill and his new partners – including an air force officer who used to run the Jerusalem Aviation Club and had experience flying toy airplanes – began a series of test flights.
But first, the team had to install a camera and it had to be small and weigh no more than half a kilogram. After reviewing a number of options, the team selected a camera made by a German imaging company called Robot that could take 50 24 mm. x 24 mm. pictures at half a frame, maximizing the roll of film. While the resolution would be of slightly lesser quality, the quantity was what Brill needed now. Later, he could always work to improve the resolution.
Activating the camera was another challenge. The Kraft airplanes had four radio channels. Three were needed to operate the plane while the fourth was free. The team initially thought it could use the fourth open channel to activate the camera – enabling them to control the timing and subjects of photos – but then Brill and his team realized this wouldn’t work. At that initial stage of development, they had no way of knowing where the plane would be and what targets it would be over. Better, they decided, to put a timer on the camera that would equip it to take a picture every few seconds.
It was improvisation at its best. Not knowing how to secure the camera in place, the team simply took strong rubber bands and tied it on the bottom, directly to the fuselage.
There was one last problem. The original toy airplanes were designed to fly at distances of just a few hundred meters, where they would always be in the line of sight of the operator. What Brill wanted to do was fly the plane two to three kilometers across a hostile border with anti-aircraft guns and some of the most sophisticated surface-to-air missile systems in the world. To do that, the team realized it would need two operators – one who would serve as the pilot and the other as the navigator.
For that to work, the team installed two sets of binoculars on a single tripod. One, with a wider view, allowed the navigator to direct the pilot – who was looking through a narrower lens – where to fly and when to turn. It was complicated to operate, but doable.
After a few test flights near Tel Aviv, Brill felt ready. He went to his commander, a colonel in charge of intelligence collection.
“We’re ready to go operational,” Brill said. The senior officer did not yet have the same level of confidence. What would happen, he asked Brill, if the Egyptians spotted the small airplane and began shooting at it.
“First I need to see that the planes can avoid getting shot down by IDF anti-aircraft guns,” Brill’s commander responded. “If they survive that baptism by fire, then they can be flown over the Suez.”
Brill was nervous. After months of working on the project, it was all about to go down in flames, possibly even in the literal sense. If a plane got shot down, it would mean the end of his idea.
Nevertheless, Brill didn’t have much of a choice.
With a heavy heart he and the team went to an anti-aircraft base not far from Tel Aviv and guided the airplane into the sky. There were three heavy anti-aircraft guns there that the IDF had captured during the Six Day War. The guns had four barrels and were capable of laying down intense artillery fire. The plane settled at 200 meters and started flying south. The anti-aircraft gunners knew the altitude and which direction the planes would be coming from.
When they opened fire, the sound was deafening. At one point, Brill could no longer see the plane. He was sure it had been shot down. But when the smoke cleared, there it was right above, soaring in the sky.
The team tested flights at 200 meters and then at a mere 100 meters, but even then, the gunners couldn’t score a direct hit. The toy airplane was too small a target. The team was astonished, as were Brill’s commanders. Within a few days he had approval for the first operational flight over Egypt.
AN UNIDENTIFIED soldier assembles the toy airplane Israel flew over the Suez Canal in 1969. (Courtesy of Shabtai Brill)AN UNIDENTIFIED soldier assembles the toy airplane Israel flew over the Suez Canal in 1969. (Courtesy of Shabtai Brill)
ON A HOT summer day in July 1969, Brill and his team drove down to an IDF outpost along the Suez Canal. What the team didn’t know was that they were going to have a tough time finding a runway. Since the toy airplane was small, it didn’t require an airport or a standard runway. A short 50-meter patch of road would suffice. But back in 1969, a 50-meter road without potholes made by Egyptian mortars and artillery shells was not easy to come by. They finally found a road just north of Ismalia, a small Egyptian city on the west bank of the Suez near Lake Timsah, also known as Crocodile Lake.
Brill and his team did some final inspections of the plane and within minutes it was up in the air. They waited to see that it reached a 100-meter altitude and was flying smoothly before taking it across the Suez into Egyptian-controlled territory. This would be the real test. Would Israel’s enemy discover the Jewish state’s newest secret weapon? Brill could barely contain his excitement.
The plan was to fly the plane along the western bank of the Suez just over the Egyptian positions. Its camera was on a timer, scheduled to take pictures of whatever was below every few seconds.
Shortly after it crossed the Suez, however, the plane flew straight into a cloud of dust – a sandy haze typical of that time of year in the Egyptian desert. Without a guidance system, the plane had no way of flying back to its base. It needed a navigator. But the navigator couldn’t see the plane.
“Fly in loops,” one of the team members yelled at the pilot. The idea was to have the plane fly in circles and hopefully “loop” over the sandstorm. After a few stressful seconds, the navigator spotted the aircraft. The mission was back on track.
Did the Egyptians spot the plane? Brill couldn’t know for sure, but for the time being they were not opening fire. Even if they heard something, they might not have known what it was. What they did notice though was something happening along the Israeli side of the canal when the Egyptians began – as they often did – shelling the IDF outpost where Brill and the team had set up their base.
In past attacks, Israeli soldiers had been killed and injured from Egyptian artillery. While everyone else ducked for cover behind nearby fortifications, the navigator and pilot had to keep an eye on the plane, which was still up in the air, and decided that no matter what they were bringing it down safely. They took cover behind a nearby wall but remained exposed to the artillery shells, keeping their eyes – through binoculars – on the descending toy.
The team succeeded in getting the plane back on the ground on the same patch of road from which it had taken off, but due to the ongoing shelling, the pilot didn’t notice a metal pole in the way and one of the wings smashed right into it. The plane was damaged but the precious payload – the camera and its film – was intact.
LATER, BRILL would find out that a group of Israeli soldiers at another nearby outpost had heard and seen something strange that day. In a report the soldiers sent a few days afterward to division headquarters they wrote, “We heard something that sounds like a bee. It was a strong sound and it looked like a small piper plane that was zigzagging in the sky.”
Within a day the film was developed and Aman had its first high-resolution photos, the first taken by a reconnaissance drone, or in this case, a toy airplane. The intelligence analysts could clearly see the Egyptian outposts, the communication cables between them and the soldiers deployed inside. It was the closest Israel had come to receiving real-time intelligence. There was nothing else like it.
Brill and the team conducted a few more flights over the Suez Canal as well as over Israel’s border with Jordan, a flight that ended with the airplane landing in a minefield. Fortunately, the team was prepared and had brought an IDF bomb sapper who safely recovered it. Also in this case, the pictures that came back were high-resolution, showing Jordanian military positions and vehicles.
AN EGYPTIAN port along the Suez Canal, photographed during the first flight of Shabtai Brill’s toy airplane. (Courtesy of Shabtai Brill)AN EGYPTIAN port along the Suez Canal, photographed during the first flight of Shabtai Brill’s toy airplane. (Courtesy of Shabtai Brill)
The success was beyond Brill’s initial expectations, and by the end of the summer, Maj.-Gen. Aharon Yariv, head of Aman, had decided to establish an official development team to take over the project and to design and assemble a small but sturdy remote-control reconnaissance drone. Yariv sent Brill a letter thanking him for his invention: “You deserve praise for this invention which you initiated, because without innovation at all levels and ranks, there would be no IDF.”
Brill moved on. He received a promotion and was put in command of all early-warning intelligence systems in the Sinai. A few months later, he received a phone call from one of his original partners. The team appointed by Yariv was focusing its efforts on building a new platform instead of relying on the existing platforms from companies like Kraft on which Brill and his team had run their tests.
Aman, it turned out, wanted an aircraft that could fly 50 km. and stay airborne for hours at a time. While the goal was a worthy one, Brill didn’t understand why the IDF hadn’t simply distributed the toy airplanes to all the intelligence officers deployed in the regional commands along Israel’s border, in the North, the South and to the East.
After the platform the Aman team was trying to build kept crashing, the Intelligence Corps’ top brass decided to shut down the project, which was starting to cost too much money, and in any case was something that should have been run by the air force. By 1971, two years after the first flight over the Suez, the project was dead.
Brill tried to overturn the decision but without success. He sent a number of letters to Yariv and the rest of the Aman leadership and warned of devastating consequences. Air force manned reconnaissance flights, he said, were only done once a week and in any case, the product was low quality and of little value. In letters sent from December 1972 up to August 1973, he continued to plead to renew the project. The toy airplanes, he beseeched his commanders, could be up flying within days.
Brill’s worst nightmare came true on October 6, 1973, when on the holy day of Yom Kippur, the Egyptian military launched a surprise attack across the Suez, proceeding up through the Sinai Peninsula. While Israel ultimately repelled the Egyptian tanks, held on to the territory and won the war, it didn’t come without a price: More than 2,500 Israeli soldiers had been killed in the bloody debacle, leaving the country in a state of trauma.
Brill was furious. Egypt had amassed its troops along the Suez Canal for days. If Aman had kept the toy airplanes and continued the reconnaissance flights, it would have known that something was happening. It would have detected Egyptian military movements and had time to bolster its own defenses – and maybe would have even succeeded in preventing the war.
Aman also understood its mistake, and when the war ended it dusted off Brill’s old plans and began investing heavily in developing a drone. What Brill had done was nice, but Israel needed something sturdier, bigger, more durable and capable of providing intelligence for hours on end. A toy airplane would not be enough.
THE VISIONARY: Shabtai Brill today. (Yossi Aloni)THE VISIONARY: Shabtai Brill today. (Yossi Aloni)
WHILE BRILL’S invention was better than what Israel had at the time, it still had a major hole. The images were not transmitted in real time. The pictures were faster than anything else the Israel Air Force was capable of providing, but it still took hours for the film to be developed.
Within that time, Egypt could easily move its Soviet-made SAMs that during the war had downed around 100 Israeli warplanes, getting IAF pilots to speak about the “missile that had bent the wing of the plane” (a slang expression). The air force needed real-time intelligence and this was something that did not yet exist.
When the engineers tried to recreate what Brill had done – just bigger and more durable – it was harder than they had originally thought. Benny Peled, commander of the air force during the Yom Kippur War, decided to send an IAF delegation to the US to see what the Americans were up to and if there was a reconnaissance drone they could simply buy off the shelf.
One drone the delegation looked at was called Aquila, a platform being built by Lockheed Martin that required a few dozen people to get it into the air but which kept crashing. Eventually, in 1987 and after costing more than $1 billion, the Pentagon decided to shut it down. Boeing was also working on a drone called the Condor that came with a 200- foot wingspan, but it was also shut down after a $300 million investment.
One company seemed promising, but after Israel placed an order, it took two years for the drones to arrive, and when they finally came in 1976, they crashed one after another during initial testing.
It was becoming clear to the top ranks in the air force that the answer to Israel’s problems was not going to be found in the United States.
Throughout this period, at Israel Aerospace Industries, a group of engineers was closely following the developments. Some of them had tried to convince the aerospace company’s top management already back in the late 1960s to put together a team to build unmanned aerial vehicles.
“We are in the plane business, not the toy business,” was the recurring answer.
But now the IDF was interested, and interest from the military meant a potential contract and potential money. By 1977, a full team was up and running to develop the platform. The team consisted of a group of engineers led by an Egyptian-born new immigrant from France named David Harari.
HARARI’S LIFE story is something like the story of the State of Israel – a rough start but eventual success. His father was born in Syria; his mother in Italy. In 1956, when Harari was 15, his father was arrested and held for 10 days by the Egyptian Mukhabarat (General Intelligence Directorate). Gamel Abdel Nasser had decided to throw out all of the Jews from Egypt.
His family was no exception and made its way to France. There, Harari discovered a knack for physics and science. His doctorate was about the spread of electromagnetic waves. He wanted to move immediately to Israel, but because the French government had paid for his studies, Harari was committed to serving in the French military. In October 1967, he finished his studies and was drafted into the French Armed Forces.
It was just four months after the Six Day War and French president Charles de Gaulle had imposed an arms embargo on the region – mostly affecting Israel and basically taking the side of the Arabs. Harari feared for the Jewish state.
While he was still obligated to complete his military service, together with some friends, he founded an aliyah movement and started recruiting potential immigrants prepared to move to Israel.
Because of his background, Harari reached out to IAI and offered to help recruit French engineers for the Israeli aerospace company. By 1970, Harari and some 300 other French engineers would move to Israel.
Harari quickly made a name for himself at IAI. His specialty was QA, quality assurance, basically overseeing projects down to the smallest of details. By 1977, when Harari was handed the reins of the nascent drone project, his bosses said they wanted something up in the air and flying by 1980. How was he going to do it? No one knew.
DAVID HARARI (second from left) shows off the nascent drone to IDF soldiers. (IAI)DAVID HARARI (second from left) shows off the nascent drone to IDF soldiers. (IAI)
His luck was his team: One member was an expert in flying toy airplanes and had experience working with Brill; another, Kobi Livni, was a hang-glider pilot; and a third, Danny Noy, had experience working on missile development in France.
The problem was that there were no technical references against which to compare what they were doing. Planes had been built and a team designing a new one could compare plans with another. With drones, however, there was nothing out there that was operational and flew. Harari and his team were building this from scratch.
“We have to succeed,” Harari told his team. “There is no alternative.”
But because it had never been done before, the team had to come up with innovative ideas. First, it had to keep quiet. No one was allowed to know what the Harari team was working on. If asked, the members came up with different excuses, told friends they were doing research, or employed some vague language about an avionics program.
One challenge was how to build a control room. Everyone knew what the inside of a cockpit looked like, but how do you reinvent that on the ground? To overcome the challenge, the team first built a control room out of wood in a mobile caravan and installed something and then took it apart. It was like Lego – seeing what fit based on trial and error until they got it right, configuring a cockpit on the ground.
The plane itself was also a challenge. While they had a basic design, the weight was a constant issue. An early model weighed 280 kg. and then jumped to 320 kg. The problem was that the IAF’s operational requirement was for the UAV to fly at 10,000-15,000 feet and with that weight, at that height, it would need an engine weighing only 30 kg. There was no such thing.
At one point, Livni had an idea and took a 10-horsepower engine from a chainsaw and modified it so it could reach 10-12 hp. That was used for the first five prototypes. After that engine was no longer powerful enough, the team contacted the American company that had built engines for the failed Aquila project, and which was still stuck with them.
The company, Herbrandson Engine Co., was happy to find someone willing to take their invention. Propellers were also an issue. The team bought a bunch in different sizes and speeds and tried them out in IAI’s wind tunnel – a large tube with air blowing through it that replicates how an aircraft will move through the air – until they found the one that worked.
By 1979, Harari and his team were ready for their first flight. The drone took off near Kibbutz Ein Shemer in the North and the flight went smoothly. The next one didn’t end as well. The drone crashed in an orange grove, ruining some of the crop. IAI had to compensate the farmer.
BY THE end of 1979, after a series of successful test flights, Harari was ready to hand over the first systems to the IAF. The team brought the drones to the IAF’s Hatzor Base in the country’s center for one last presentation before Air Force Commander Maj.-Gen. David Ivry. It was supposed to be a ceremonial review. The drones had flown countless hours. They worked and transmitted photos seamlessly back to the control room.
Before the ceremonially transfer of the drones, Harari had one take to the air and land right next to Ivry.
“Commander, the system is operational,” he said. “It is now yours.”
“I won’t take it,” Ivry said.
“Why, sir?” asked Harari. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
The drone, Ivry explained, did not have brakes and therefore required a runway of at least 400 meters to land on so it could keep moving until it came to a stop by itself.
“We won’t always have runways of that length,” the IAF chief said. “Give it brakes and make sure it can stop after 100 meters.”
Harari took the news hard but went right back to work. The challenge was that if they installed a proper braking system on the plane, the weight would be too much for the platform to handle. So the team improvised. Instead of brakes, they attached a small hook on the plane’s fuselage and then planted a cable on the runway. When it landed, the hook caught on to the cable – much the same as on an aircraft carrier – and came to a stop.
A few months later, Ivry came to IAI. Harari and the team demonstrated the system and its new braking system with the hook. The IAF commander liked what he saw and nodded at Harari. He was ready to accept the new drones. That day, in October 1980, the IAF received four Scout drones and one control room, set up in a mobile caravan. The planes were made of aluminum, carried a camera that weighed 17 kg., had a wingspan of 2.8 meters and was 3.7 meters long. With a full tank of gas, each weighed 135 kg.
Even though Ivry believed in the program, there were still lots of officers in the IDF who were skeptical it could work, and even if Israel’s new secret weapon could fly, whether it would fulfill its purpose and provide any real value on the battlefield.
DAVID IVRY (left), then heading up the Defense Ministry, meets with Turkish deputy army chief Cevik Bir at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv in 1997. (Reuters)DAVID IVRY (left), then heading up the Defense Ministry, meets with Turkish deputy army chief Cevik Bir at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv in 1997. (Reuters)
That’s how one day in March 1981, Harari and his team found themselves in the Sinai Peninsula. Israel had already reached a peace agreement with Egypt and was starting to prepare to evacuate the territory it had conquered during the Six Day War, but wanted to hold one last large-scale drill there before removing its military forces.
It was the first large-scale IDF drill the Scout would take part in, which also meant that people were going to see it for the first time. Israel’s new weapon was going to come out in the open. Anyway, it was time. If the IDF wanted to prove it could work, it needed to use it. Harari jumped at the chance.
The commander of the drill was Ehud Barak, who would later go on to become the IDF chief of staff, defense minister and prime minister. Dan Shomron, who would also serve as head of the IDF, was then in charge of the Southern Command.
When Harari arrived at drill headquarters – a bunch of tents in the middle of the desert – Barak called him over.
“I received an order to let you fly your toy, but you should know that I don’t believe in it,” he said. “Nevertheless, I am an army officer and I will follow orders.’
But that wasn’t all. Barak told Harari he would have 20 minutes to fly the drone, and not a second more.
“After that, don’t bother me,” he said.
Harari was given a 30-minute window to fly starting 9 a.m. the following day. He decided to launch it at 8:30 so it would be airborne and begin transmitting images immediately once the drill began.
For takeoff, the team used a new invention – a launcher that could catapult the drone into the sky without requiring a runway. When it launched, though, one of the front wheels somehow got caught and disconnected, falling to the ground. The plane was in the air, but anyone watching saw that something had dislodged. Shomron asked Harari if everything was okay.
“It’ll be fine,” he replied. “We will find a way to get the plane to land.”
One of the team members had an idea. He got his hands on a camouflage net – the kind used to disguise tanks in the desert – and placed it on the road the team planned to use for landing. The controller would land it on its back wheels and the netting would stop it and protect the camera attached to the fuselage.
Meanwhile, the drone was still in the air. It still needed to prove itself. Inside the control caravan were members of the team as well as Shomron and Barak. Everyone had their eyes on the TV screen, watching the images. For the drill, the IDF had built a “canal” in the desert and told the units coming up from the South that there would be a bridge they would need to cross.
Right before the forces arrived at the fake canal, however, the planners of the drill suddenly removed the bridge. The idea was to see how forces would react, and if they would know how to improvise and come up with another solution.
What the drill planners didn’t know, though, was that representatives of the units were sitting with Harari and his team in the control caravan. The trick was out. They knew before arriving at the canal that the bridge would not be there.
“Get that mosquito out of the sky,” one of the drill planners yelled into the radio. “It’s ruining our drill!”
Barak was watching as all of this unfolded.
“I get it,” he confessed to Harari. “This is information that comes in real time and can win a war. This little toy of yours can influence the outcome of a war.”
THE DRILL changed the way the army thought about UAVs. Ehud Barak’s prediction was not that far off. No one knew it yet, but war was not that far away.
In 1982, Israel decided to invade Lebanon. Palestinian terrorists were regularly firing Katyusha rockets across the border, and the PLO was directing attacks against Israel from Beirut. Prime minister Menachem Begin had determined that enough was enough. Israel had to change the paradigm and take the war to the Lebanese.
About a year earlier, after Israel had downed two Syrian helicopters over Lebanon, the Syrians started deploying Soviet-made SA-6 SAM systems in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. This was a direct threat against Israeli aerial superiority. Pilots started to fear a repeat of the events of the Yom Kippur War, when Egypt’s SAMs had wreaked havoc on Israeli warplanes.
Ivry, the IAF commander, was in favor of preemptive action. But first he needed intelligence. The new Scout drones were key and he would frequently send them over the Bekaa Valley, sometimes using unique flying techniques – to hide their radar signature – so they could take pictures of the missile batteries. In addition, the Scouts were used during aerial bombings of terrorist bases to track where the terrorists would go next. This helped the IAF create more targets.
The Syrians started to hear about the new toys the Israelis were using over Lebanon. In one case, they scrambled a couple of MiG-21 interceptors but couldn’t even find the Scouts, which flew at low altitudes and slower speeds. The Syrians then brought MiG-17s, older and slower planes whose pilots they thought would more easily spot the Scouts, but this tactic also failed.
AN IDF soldier stands behind a Scout, a model of one of the first spy drones made by Israel. (Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters)AN IDF soldier stands behind a Scout, a model of one of the first spy drones made by Israel. (Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters)
By the time war broke out in 1982, the Syrians had deployed 19 surface-to-air missile systems in the Bekaa Valley. But Israel was prepared. The IAF had spent the previous nine years – since the debacle of the Yom Kippur War – honing and perfecting tactics to suppress enemy air-defense systems. Ivry knew he had to succeed. It wasn’t just the prestige of the air force on the line. This was a battle that could entirely change the way air power would be viewed for years to come.
On June 9, Ivry gave the green light for the operation. When the Syrians saw the IAF planes coming, they decided to clear the skies of their own planes since they figured that their 19 missile batteries would take care of the Israeli F-15s and F-16s. That was a mistake. Using electronic warfare pods and other countermeasures, the Israeli fighter jets were able to get close enough to the missile batteries to start taking them out. By the end of the day, all 19 had been destroyed.
When the Syrians saw what was happening, they dispatched their MiGs to try intercepting the Israeli fighter jets. But that also didn’t work. Within 40 minutes, 26 Syrian planes had been shot down. By the end of the week, a total of 82 Syrian planes were downed. Yet this time, and unlike the Yom Kippur War, not a single Israeli plane was lost. Not even one.
What people didn’t know though was that Operation Mole Cricket 19 – as it later became known – was not just unprecedented due to the IAF’s success in neutralizing a Soviet-designed missile defense network, but it was also the first time in modern warfare that drones had played a central role.
With drones in the air, Ivry and the rest of the IAF top brass sitting in the underground command center in Tel Aviv could see exactly where the missile batteries were located in the valley. They could then hail a pilot by radio and explain the precise location to him.
“Without drones we would not have been able to attack the SAMs,” Ivry recalled recently. “The flight of a bomb is a few minutes, and the drone could tell us if the SAM was moving, and during the flight of the missile we could change its course.”
But Ivry was in for an even bigger surprise. Eight years later, in 1990, Ivry – now the director-general of the Defense Ministry – traveled to the Czech Republic and met with the deputy chief of staff, who told him that in 1982 he had been a student at the National Defense College in Moscow.
“I know your name well,” the Czech officer told Ivry. “The Soviets took what happened that day very hard since they thought the SAM network was hermetic. Your operation had a great impact on the Soviets and undermined their feeling of invincibility.”
Back in 1982, no one had ever seen drones in battle before. Israel had changed modern warfare.
MOLE CRICKET 19 went down in history as one of the most amazing aerial operations in world history, not only due to Israel’s success in suppressing Syria’s air-defense systems, but also because of the effective way Israel used its new drones.
No one in the world at the time had operational reconnaissance drones like Israel’s, not even the United States. That would take a few more years, and they would eventually come from Israel and be made by Harari and his IAI colleagues.
In the years since, drones have slowly turned into the IDF’s workhorse. In the IAF, unmanned flight hours long ago surpassed manned flight hours. But even on the ground, there is barely any operation that takes place without being accompanied by a drone. Routine arrest raids in the West Bank and border patrols along the border with Gaza or Lebanon all receive a drone component.
At any given minute, on almost all of Israel’s fronts, there is a drone up in the sky somewhere, searching for an enemy.
Drones in the IDF come today in different sizes, shapes and purposes. Some, like the Heron TP – the largest in the IAF fleet – can stay airborne for days at a time; others can reportedly carry missiles for attack operations. Smaller drones, like the Skylark, can be launched like a football by a soldier who carries it in his backpack.
A HERON unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) made by Israel Aerospace Industries. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)A HERON unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) made by Israel Aerospace Industries. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)
What drones provide is not just real-time intelligence but also the ability to track targets, to see where they are going, who they are with and when is the optimal time to attack. As I wrote a few weeks ago in the story about the targeted killing of Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata last November, once the order was given that he needed to be killed, the IAF was constantly following him. All day, every day. How? With drones.
When thinking about the question of how Israel has succeeded in minimizing collateral damage and going from dropping one-ton bombs on buildings to take out a single terrorist, to being able to put a missile accurately through a specific wall, drones are a big part of what makes that possible. They provide intelligence exactly as events are happening, enabling pilots to launch a missile at the right time or self-destruct one if an innocent bystander suddenly enters a kill zone.
Now think about how this all started on the banks of the Suez Canal with a toy airplane 51 years ago.
This is the second installment in a series of articles on how the IDF has succeeded in improving its precision capabilities in recent years.