Israel’s eye in the sky

The Air Force must often act quickly and stealthily. This is where the UAV squadron and the companies that supply it with its advanced drones come into the picture.

The Ghost 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Ghost 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 its end.
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 border.
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 carry.
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 attack.
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 years.
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.
Israel’s first experience with unmanned aircraft was in 1969 during the War of Attrition.
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 Sinai.
“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.
In 1971, 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.”
IN THE 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 Aeronautics.
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 Afghanistan.
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.”
Amit Wolff, 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 leader.
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 villages.
“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 recalls.
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.
“In 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 reservists.”
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 Afghanistan.
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 payloads.
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.
“Due to 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 said.
“Its operation costs are less than a manned aircraft, people are not put in danger and it can sometimes even do a better job.”
One example 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.
THE 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 transfers.
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.” ■