Israel Leads in Unmanned Drones

When IDF ground forces entered Gaza in Operation Cast Lead 10 months ago, they had something looking out for them up above, and it wasn’t just G-d.

Yehezkel Laing , | updated: 6:07 PM

The Mosquito UAV drone
The Mosquito UAV drone
Israel news photo

Part One of a two-part series

When IDF ground forces entered the Gaza Strip in Operation Cast Lead ten months ago, they had something looking out for them up above, and it wasn’t just G-d. During the military campaign, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) team was being operated by IDF Sgt. Leiberman in a combined force with the Givati Brigade – affording the office commanders the option of being updated in real-time as to the positions of the soldiers and the enemy forces.

This is just one of the recent Israeli developments in the world of unmanned drones. Israel has become a leader on the cutting edge of the unmanned vehicles industry. While it started with aerial vehicles, the country has expanded into developing advanced crafts for the skies, sea and the ground.  

In addition to operating the UAVs from the operations room, the reconnaissance division of the Givati Brigade, located in the Gaza Strip, was able to instantaneously see the UAV-sent video footage of the soldiers’ position on a screen. "We talked to the soldiers and guided them directly," says Sgt. Leiberman.

He explains that the most important task was accompanying the ground forces in the territory: "When the forces entered and crossed the border, the UAV flew 500 meters in front of them, clearing the area. We guided them and gave them advice regarding a safe point of entrance, what was risky and what was not."  

"We sat there with all of the Brigade’s officers and received assignments directly from them," said Leiberman.  The UAV team also collected intelligence information. "The moment we saw an enemy force moving towards our forces, we immediately involved all the officers who were conveniently located beside us at all times. It all took just a matter of seconds. We were vital to the missions and very connected to our soldiers." 

A Leader in the Industry 
“Israel was the first army in the world to use unmanned drones,” says Steve Rodan from Middle East Newsline, a Canada-based news agency reporting on military and security developments. “Israel used drones as far back as the Yom Kippur War in 1973.” Today, Israeli companies Elbit, Israel Aerospace Industries and Aeronautics Defense are all leaders in the field.  

The Israeli Air Force (IAF) possesses a fleet of Searcher and Heron UAVs to perform surveillance and reconnaissance. Israeli UAVs also feature prominently in the missions of Western armies in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition, IAI recently revealed a unique, miniature, hand-launched UAV. The ultra-light UAV, called the Mosquito, was developed in conjunction with the Ministry of Defense for use by combat units in gathering field intelligence. Weighing only 500 grams, the Mosquito is less than half as heavy as the micro-class UAVs developed thus far. It has a range of two kilometers and can fly autonomously for 40 minutes at a time, even in winds of up to 25 knots. Equipped with a miniature camera, the micro-UAV can be maneuvered from the launch site by troops monitoring it in flight. 

Not Only Defense
The IAF is expected to introduce strike drones to its fleet within two years, capable of hitting high-value enemy targets, according to a senior IAF officer. The Israeli-made Harop unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), Israel's first unmanned aerial vehicle for offensive strikes, will enhance the conventional and low intensity conflict war-fighting capabilities of the IAF without the use of manned fighter planes. The London Sunday Times claims that the IAF has already used combat UAVs to carry out strikes on three Sudanese convoys carrying Iranian missiles destined for Hamas in Gaza. 

U.S. Follows Israel
The only country that is close to Israel in the unmanned platform field is the U.S., which took a long time to appreciate the significance of the technology. “It took the United States 20 years to realize the importance of unmanned vehicles,” says Rodan. “The U.S. Air Force in particular was opposed to UAVs. Now the U.S. Air Force uses a leading UAV called the Predator developed by California-based General Atomics.” 

Boeing and Lockheed-Martin are even trying to develop unmanned combat aircraft. “It would be an F-16 type of airplane that can be operated via report control or even independently,” according to Rodan. “For instance, you could program it to fly from point A to B in Iran and launch X amount of missiles.” 

A “Small” Industry
The unmanned platform business is still relatively small for the global defense industry, accounting for “only” $5-10 billion. Rodan says it is small for two reasons: “First of all, not every country is capable of operating the highly advanced platforms. In addition, many air forces want to use pilots, as that increases the countries’ prestige, since it can display the pilots. Many air forces prefer a Mig-29 or Mig-30 with a pilot because they want their personnel involved.”