Eyes in the sky: Israel Defence Forces drones

The story of how Israeli UAVs defend the country on the ground, in the sky and in the information domain.

Information security is the cornerstone and essence of Israel. It was given serious attention long before the very term of information security emerged in its traditional meaning in the 21st century. With the country stretching for just 470 km long and 135 km wide (in its widest part), and considering certain hostility of the neighbours, being able to see what’s happening 100 km around its territory became the important part of national security for as long as Israel was around.


I have written a number of articles on Israeli approach to information security in the digital technology domain, but today I will review it from a different angle.

Drones started to get covered by media during the last decade, but armed forces had been employing drones for quite a long time by then. For instance, in Israel, they have been on duty since as long as 1969 and remained on guard in the air, while being modified and upgraded on the ground.

Moreover, the production of drones became one of the country’s most important items of export. These flying intelligence officers are shipped to a number of countries, including Russia. As just one unit would cost up to $5–10M, the contracts could be worth a lot.

Here we should note that there are two types of drones: watchers and warriors. Israel is quite open about the first type, whereas the information on the second type is classified. A drone operator based in Palmachim, Israeli Air Force base located near Rishon LeZion, told us about those drones which serve solely to collect information. Well, anyway, his story is quite interesting.

Army’s little helper

Using drones became one of Israel’s most important point on the agenda back in 1960s, and in 1969, a corresponding division was created. The first UAV’s were basically radio-piloted models with a regular camera on board. Such a little plane would take off, cross the border, take pictures, return to the base, and then the technical servicers would go and process the film.

When the situation on the border was not stable, this process was hold on a 24/7 basis, and in those rare moments when all was fine, UAV’s would take off just several times per day. They did not fly high and were susceptible to being shot down, but more and more drone were used to take over for those which were forced out of action.

Then another advantage of drones was discovered: operators could change shifts more frequently than UAVs itself

In fact, this intelligence method was not very different from regular aerial mapping, but with one key difference: should a drone be shot down, the government would lose just money, and not people — the most important asset of this tiny country.

The neighbours were not sitting around, though. Bearing in mind that Israel trusted the data gathered by UAV’s, back in 70s, Egyptians (not without a help coming from Soviet advisor’s) constantly rotated the disposition of forces and missile launcher sites on the border.

As a result, while the drone returned to the base and the films were processed, the information was not up-to-date any more. It was quite an unpleasant surprise during the Judgement Day War in 1973, which served the primary reason for deploying live video streaming from UAVs.

Now this task seems quite an easy one, but back in 1970s, when television and transmission equipment could be stored only in huge shipping containers, the engineers had quite a job to do. For some time, Israel purchased American drones, but the US, for obvious reasons, would never consider tracking enemy’s manoeuvres at the border a big deal.


First American UAVs mockups

UAV’s produced in the US were firstly serving a purpose of provoking response from the potential adversary’s missile launchers, in order to discover and suppress them. Also, American drones were not able to return back to the base. Launched from an air-plane or a battleship, they would just fall somewhere quiet and wait until they could be retrieved.

The ability of one of such drone models, Teledyne Ryan Firebee, to remain afloat before sinking, was marketed as a real advantage that days. Consequently, using such UAV’s on a massive scale was extremely expensive and unjustified.

As a result, in 1979 the first locally produced drone named IAI Scout was launched. The drone proved to be so successful that it had been employed by the Israeli army until 2005, and some states use Scout even until now. If evaluated as a regular plane, Scout was back then seen as a laugh, being of 96 kilos empty-weight, using a piston engine and cruising at only 102 kph.



IAI Scout, the first Israeli UAV

But this UAV could remain airborne for 7 solid hours and, even more importantly, had a TV-grade Tamam camera with a telescopic lens, and streamed video to the ground in real time. Its small dimensions and ability to fly as high as 4 km made it practically invulnerable from the ground, and even the adversary’s fighter jets had problems shooting it down.

Then another advantage of drones was discovered: operators could change shifts more frequently than UAVs itself

Back then the images transmitted from the camera were black and white, but then a colour camera was deployed, also able to film in complete darkness. This was enough to secure safety, if only for a short time.

However, after 1973, less adversaries were willing to wage a full-scale war against Israel. But the new threat emerged. Terrorism replaced the threat of war, and brought another challenge: constant succession of minute assaults from all sides.

Now, UAV’s had another task: to track and follow not only armed forces but standalone vehicles and people. Streaming videos was not enough any more: the drones had to employ a new functionality of tracking and geo-positioning objects.

Then another advantage of drones was discovered: operators could change shifts more frequently than UAV’s itself. If a person has to look at a single spot for over 5 hours, his alertness is inevitably decreasing. In case of UAV’s, one flight can be operated by several teams by turns, each of them absolutely alert and safe.

Pathfinder in the sky

It was obvious that the obsolete IAI Scout cannot be modernized forever, so back in 1992, a new generation came to replace it, called IAI Searcher. In 6 years, another UAV named Searcher 2 was created. It had a wider wingspread (8.55 m vs. 7.22 m), increased duration of uninterrupted flight (15-17 hrs vs. 12-14 hrs) and considerably higher altitude ceiling (7 km vs 4.5 km).


First generation of IAI Searcher


Its main merit was a module-based construction. It allowed to configure the drone in accordance to its task. Besides video footage, it could serve to coordinate ground forces order of battle, and perform deep reconnaissance thanks to its powerful radar module.

IAI Searcher 2 in Israeli army

IAI Searcher 2 in Israeli army

The park of Israeli UAVs is constantly modernized and extended. Even before Searcher 2, a huge drone called IAI Heron (with a wingspan of 16.6 m) was developed. Its first flight dates back to 1994, but it was admitted on scale only in 2005.

With full tanks, its flight can last as long as 46 hrs, and practical altitude ceiling is up to 9 km. In 2012, Heron became the most actively exported UAV produced in Israel, priced as high as $10 million per unit. Its successor, Heron TP (aka Eitan), has a wingspan of 26m, which is comparable to the civilian Boeing 737. The duration of the uninterrupted flight is 36 hours.

An important addition here is that all components are produced locally in Israel. Not only does in create additional jobs, it helps to remain independent of shipments from abroad, should a supplier prove unreliable.

All components of drones are produced in Israel. Software development is also organized locally.

The history has known cases when using this or that weapon was not in line with the producing country’s agenda, so the latter would stop procuring elements or shipping product to the buyer. Israeli UAV’s are produced locally. And, according to some sources, Israel produces some details for American planes shipped to the country — just in case.

Software development is also organized locally. The process, mainly, is deployed by UAV producer, but many functions are updated and aligned by the conscript and contracted soldiers.

Of course, the drone itself is just a tip of the iceberg. Modern drones have ground operating stations, which are also sold for piles of money.

The data obtained by a drone is a subject to analysis and should be stored somewhere, and this is where such solutions come into play (curiously, the data obtained by the majority of drones is recorded on… regular DVDs as they are one of the cheapest and reliable means of storage).

Drones were useful in classic warfare, with extensive armed troops and distinct battle line. Today, where conflicts are usually ongoing in highly populated areas containing a lot of (relatively) peaceful civilians, UAVs become a real tool of information security.

Once, a day would come when ex-military are dismissed and create their own businesses based on the experience they got while in the army. Considering quite a hype around all kinds of drones, Israeli developers have a pool of infinite opportunity. Besides being a pure leisure, drones are seriously considered as a substitute of cranes used at construction sites.

Drones can make good couriers, and this opportunity is getting a hearty welcome from those who are usually disappointed by couriers of flesh and bone. As cited by a character of the “The Door into Summer” by Robert Heinlein, “That’s the nice thing about top-secret gimmicks — they don’t get patented”. It’s cool that some tech which was developed to primarily protect lives, start to make these lives more enjoyable.