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The Jerusalem Post

Israeli drone power: How UAVs have taken the IDF to a new level

 
 FUTURE FRAMED by drones: A large Israel Air Force drone touches down.  (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
FUTURE FRAMED by drones: A large Israel Air Force drone touches down.
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)

Commander of IDF drone attack unit gives the ‘Magazine’ a rare, in-depth look at the UAVs of the Israeli military.

From May 9 to May 13, the IDF attacked Islamic Jihad in Gaza 422 times, including 278 distinct targets. Impressive-sounding numbers.

But those were probably not the key numbers in the operation.

The key number was around 4,000.

IDF drones logged over 4,000 hours hovering over Gaza during the five-day operation. These drones also carried out 115 airstrikes.

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This trend could also be seen from the May 2021 Gaza conflict, in which drones, most of them taking off from Palmahim Air Force Base, carried out 643 missions.

 ON LANDING pad: IDF drones logged over 4,000 hours hovering over Gaza during the five-day operation in May. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
ON LANDING pad: IDF drones logged over 4,000 hours hovering over Gaza during the five-day operation in May. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)

Of the six Islamic Jihad senior leaders killed by the IDF during this May’s operation, it has not been revealed whether they were struck by an “old-fashioned” human-manned aircraft or by a drone. But it is safe to say that some of them were likely eliminated by drones, since the IDF has used drones for such sophisticated targeted killing operations at times.

In one his speeches, Air Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Tomer Bar said that drones had been vital for following and capturing terrorists in the West Bank to try to gain control over the waves of terrorism that Israel has been experiencing cyclically since March 2022. In addition, in late 2022 he said that all recent operations at that time against Hamas in Gaza were heavily dependent on drones for collecting intelligence, targeting Hamas personnel precisely while avoiding collateral harm to civilians and, essentially, for keeping up a pace of attacks that would deter Hamas from future rounds of fighting.

The IDF periodically distributes video footage of its drone attacks. Sometimes the attacks went forward, and sometimes they were called off; and in some of the attacks, the video and communications are unmistakably part of a drone team.

This can be derived from the hovering nature of the video and from the kinds of communications between the drone operator and the drone commander, which do not usually take place with a human pilot.

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The Magazine got a much deeper understanding of these and other processes and strategic and tactical uses of IDF drones during a visit to the Tel Nof Air Force Base near Rehovot in the center of the country, one of Israel’s three largest air bases.

Speaking to IDF drone Unit 210 commander Lt.-Col. T. (his full name is still classified), the Magazine delved into the full range of questions of what are IDF drones’ challenges, opportunities and potential on the various fronts.

In March, T. told the Post that the drones were “serving more in the West Bank, which is only natural,” since most conflict and security issues at the time arose from the West Bank. However, “intelligence collection is observing on all fronts. You decide based on the operational situation. Sometimes Gaza needs more [which it would later in May], so you don’t abandon any front.”

According to a senior IDF official, the over 4,000 hours in Gaza were no fluke. Rather, over 75% of the flight hours of the Air Force currently are flown by drones as opposed to piloted aircraft – even though certain crucial actions, especially some of those farther from Israel’s borders, are still performed by combat aircraft.

And the number of flight hours that drones take up for the Air Force is only expected to increase.

T.’s IDF unit uses around four main types of drones, which perform a mix of intelligence collection and attack activities.

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

Some drones can even be used as attack drones themselves, not just using missiles; they can be sent on a collision/suicide course to destroy a target.

The Unit 210 commander said, “Looking ahead, there will be a future framed by drones. This will leave humans out of danger, it will be cheaper, and there will be fewer limits on their activities than there are for humans. The drones can also undertake more varied missions.”

A top IDF official said that in the future, there will be a paradigm shift, and that it is only a matter of time before combat pilots could be completely replaced by drones. According to one daring prediction, the F-35 will be the last major piloted plane produced. 

Not that this would mean that humans would be out of the picture.

The Post understands that the IDF view would be that there is no complete getting around people, and that having a drone human operator is still crucial, since the military and society do not want machines making moral or strategic decisions.

Even when artificial intelligence is deeply involved with targeting issues, IDF sources would say that AI doesn’t decide. Rather, the IDF uses big data to then quickly deliver improved intelligence to the relevant commander and security forces.

T. is 35, from Jerusalem, is married, and has two daughters. He has been part of the drone unit for 15 years, including the three-year elite pilot course, significant time in the field, and various headquarters command appointments before becoming the unit’s commander.

He now uses the Hebrew acronym “Katmam” to refer to the drones as opposed to “Katbam” or other phrases, the purpose of which is to emphasize the centrality of the human role in the process, and its being switched from being physically present in the cockpit to directing the drone remotely.

Part of the dialogue about drones has also gotten easier since the IDF finally broke its censoring of their existence in July 2022 (though it was one of Israel’s most widely known “secrets” for years).

According to a senior IDF source, part of drones’ versatility is their unique ability to be moved around at a moment’s notice from one front to another. This is without needing to perform an entirely new briefing and set of training expectations for the different fronts.

In terms of the dilemma of maintenance when a drone is out in the field, even if there is a defect in a drone’s engine the IDF says that a drone can still usually continue on its way to return to its launch area.

Generally, if certain indicator warning lights go off, then an error is flagged by the drone and at headquarters, and relevant officials are immediately contacted to try to handle the situation.

Surprisingly, drones have become such a massive military tool that they are now being used at all levels of the IDF. This includes a Givati Brigade unit that the Post visited on the Gaza border and Artillery Corps units. (The Post visited or interviewed the Givati and artillery units in recent months.) Drones are now 60% of IDF artillery, taking over primacy from traditional land-based artillery.

If that is true, then what is unique about Unit 210 of the Air Force using drones?

A fully comprehensive answer is more complex and also mission-specific. But in basic terms, the drones used by infantry forces are the smallest, least powerful, easiest to operate, more likely to have a short range and mission of trying to observe any enemy fighters on the next close-by hill, and less likely to have their own independent attack capabilities.

Likewise, the artillery unit’s drones have additional intelligence collection and attack capabilities requiring some additional training and larger sizes than the infantry unit’s drones.

But the Air Force unit’s drones are by far the largest and most complex. Drones that the Post got to look over were larger than some small passenger aircraft and as large as many combat aircraft.

In other words, the Air Force’s drones are more strategic weapons and intelligence collectors and can be used for much farther distances and in more varied capacities on different fronts.

The strategic weapon part is critical.

In May, OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Eliezer Toledano described the May 9-13 Operation Shield and Arrow, telling the Post and some other military journalists, “It was important to us to start the operation with complete surprise, in the middle of peacetime, because against terror organizations which use their citizens and families as human shields, it is necessary to operate using clever tactics.”

Toledano did not get into what activities drones carried out and what activities piloted aircraft, but it is virtually certain that drones were within the intelligence and attack mix of instruments being used to achieve surprise.

Drones could also assist in making such simultaneous attacks more possible.

Further, IDF sources revealed details about some of the multiple times that they delayed attacks on the three senior Jihad leaders in order to reduce the number of ancillary civilian casualties and to make sure they hit them all at once. There were at least two earlier incidents where the IDF called off the attacks.

Once again, the IDF did not say exactly how, but the number of flight hours required to keep an eye on such targets over several days in order to make such informed decisions would seem to almost guarantee that drones were part, if not most, of the picture.

IDF chief spokesman Brig.-Gen. Daniel Hagari said that besides the initial success in striking the three Islamic Jihad leaders, a parallel achievement which could not be taken entirely for granted was striking another three top Islamic Jihad leaders on May 11 and 12. He said that this was especially difficult because those officials were already in hiding, knowing they were targets.

Finding their hideouts in the middle of the operation was its own special intelligence challenge and will likely be a key role for drones in terms of tracking movements on a regular basis.

Another achievement, according to the IDF, was reducing Islamic Jihad’s mortar fire capabilities by 50% by striking around 63 mortar-connected targets.

This achievement and striking missile crews on their way to firing missiles in real time in general would likely be greatly facilitated by drones’ hovering capabilities in order to avoid any gaps in surveillance.

Urban warfare and avoiding war-crime allegations

Of course, effectiveness in war for the IDF always has another side to it, since so many countries and groups are seeking to delegitimize Israel with the alleged “war crimes” banner before the International Criminal Court.

From an avoiding war crimes perspective, T. told the Post that “Drones are more exact to avoid civilian casualties.” For collecting intelligence, “They keep their eyes on the target. They can look out for any civilians or especially kids who suddenly jump into the frame.”

The complexity of fighting greatly increases in urban warfare in terms of detecting people, objects and structures, as opposed to in an open field. Drone operators must also distinguish innocent civilians from combatants.

How do the IDF drone operators deal with a challenge where they cannot see everything? They might need to get closer. The Post has learned that they might need to circle around an object from different angles to avoid something obstructing their view. Still, there are many imperfect situations, and eventually the IDF must balance considering the impact on civilian people and objects nearby along with how critical the specific mission and target are.

Sometimes, constant monitoring can help the IDF avoid additional civilian casualties, where other militaries might fail. This does not mean that the IDF does not sometimes unintentionally and tragically kill civilians in the middle of war.

And the laws of war do not require democratic countries to avoid ancillary civilian casualties in all cases when targeting an enemy or enemy object that is difficult to strike. But in the legitimacy battle, the IDF has distributed videos (some of which are likely from drones) to show that it called off attacks. These are a big help to convince US and European allies that Israel is still trying to avoid casualties where possible.

In 2014, there was a famous case where an IAF strike unit made an error and mistook four Palestinian minors on a beach as Hamas naval commandos and mistakenly killed them.

The IDF eventually apologized, though it said that since the attack was a technical and intelligence mistake, no one would be prosecuted.

The IDF was asked whether drone and satellite technology has advanced enough to avoid such similar mistakes going forward. According to IDF sources, the technology has advanced significantly over the last decade for distinguishing between a child and a grown-up, though that doesn’t mean that in extenuating circumstances there cannot still be mix-ups.

 IDF MAINTENANCE staff inspect an air force drone. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
IDF MAINTENANCE staff inspect an air force drone. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)

Drone operating teams

Typically, drone teams have an operator, or remote pilot, and a commander, often at the rank of major. Sometimes lieutenant-colonels, including T. himself, are directly involved in managing specific sensitive operations. Even the drone pilot is typically an officer at the rank of lieutenant with some significant experience.

Drone course graduates have already completed six months of general drone training in addition to prior more general IDF training. They then have three months of more specialized drone training, after which they are placed in various drone operational units.

The operating teams then switch over periodically to maintain a constant level of heightened awareness, even as the drone itself does not need to sleep or rest as much.

Women break the drone ‘ceiling’

The “face” of the drone unit has changed over time.

Currently, slightly less than half of the senior commanders who help T. run the drone unit are women, including his top deputy. There is also a general increase in female personnel within the broader drone operations force, with the technical maintenance force approaching around a fifty-fifty male-female split. In contrast, when T. started in the drone unit, the number of women involved might have been in the single digits in terms of percentage.

Interactions with IDF intelligence bank

In recent months, the Post visited Military Intelligence’s target bank.

A senior IDF official said that there are regular, quick and efficient interactions between the target bank and the drone unit in terms of when to collect intelligence and when to strike.

Sometimes these interactions may require only a matter of seconds, given that the drone may already be hovering above the target on one front or another.

Lebanon/Megiddo border breach

As amazing as their speed and constant hovering capabilities are, drones are not omnipotent.

T. was asked about how, if the drones are able to hover over borders to catch sudden new military activities, Hezbollah was able to penetrate the northern border fence and send an operative all the way down to Megiddo in March to carry out a bombing.

This was considered a major security breach by the IDF.

“We always worry about attempted penetrations from the Lebanese border. Drones cannot police every centimeter. But they do have an advantage in that they can move around much faster and more easily than troops,” T said.

Foreign military interactions

Unit 210 was not involved in the large US-Israel Juniper Oak exercise in January, but the unit does train with the US. According to IDF sources, the unit meets with US military personnel periodically, and there is deep cooperation and reciprocal sharing of tactics and enhancing operational capabilities from that sharing. 

Curiously, the Post had learned from other sources that German pilots are regularly training for operating Israel’s Heron drone at the same Tel Nof base where T.’s unit operates.

Apparently, the Germans operate at a different part of the base, but the Germans who are training there, who are switched periodically, do occasionally interact with their Israeli counterparts, mostly in English.

Hacking

Over the years, the Post and others have reported that drones and most advanced military hardware can be hacked. In addition, in 2022 and 2023 there are growing, more specific reports of Iran’s cyber hacking capabilities increasing, including some new successful penetrations it has had into Israel.

The Post has learned that the IDF view would be that anything with advanced technology can get hacked, but that also cyberdefense has gotten better. The IDF is familiar with reports that the Iranians are getting better at hacking various systems but could not discuss the issue in detail.

Army of the nation/reservist crisis

The Post met with T. amid an ongoing debate in which the IDF model of a general draft was being questioned. Also, the country has been debating the “IDF reservist crisis” during which a number of elite Air Force combat pilots were threatening not to report for duty, to protest the government’s judicial overhaul policy.

T. said that with the IDF and the Air Force, “The story is the people. Serving is mandatory. Everyone must join the IDF, just like everyone must attend school. A significant piece of blending the nation together is IDF service.

“A significant challenge is mixing all of the different diverse backgrounds from all over the country together under one command. From Dimona to Kiryat Shmona to Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, we get the best people. This is part of the magic of the IDF,” he said.

T. added, “We are not a big state. We try to bring people together to form an Israeli rainbow. It is not about people’s past, but their present. At the same time, we don’t say to forget your unique past, but we unite in the present around defending the State of Israel. This has a magical unifying effect.” 

In December 2022, Artillery Commander Brig.-Gen. Neri Horowitz said at the 40th graduation ceremony for drone pilots that drones have a crucial impact on almost every single offensive or defensive operation in which the IDF is involved. “In nearly every operational event, whether offensive or defensive, a drone is involved.”

Horowitz also said that due to the huge success and impact of drones, they have added new and additional categories of drone units to keep up with the military’s needs.

T. clearly views his role as the drone Unit 210 commander as a unique opportunity to help the State of Israel’s security and have a positive influence on related military goals and various social contributions which the IDF can make to Israeli society. 

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