The Eitan – lauded as the most advanced unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in the world – is a 4.5-tonne monster with a wingspan of 26m, a sophisticated array of reconnaissance equipment and a multi-sensor one-tonne payload. Its matt grey composite hulk lurks in the sunshine of a parade ground on the Tel Nof airbase, next to an F15 attack plane and a Sikorsky transport helicopter; it’s larger than both.
With the ability to remain airborne for well over 20 hours, many see the Eitan as essential to preparations for a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. And taking it from hangar to 12,000m in the air needs just four clicks of a computer mouse. Past endless layers of security at military bases around the country and deep in the air-conditioned hum of hi-tech hangars, Israel is developing the next generation of aerial robotic warfare.
Other countries make and use UAVs extensively – they have proved vital for the US, for instance, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen. But Israel, despite its small size, has become a world leader in both their development and production. Among its exports are the Heron 1 – the Eitan’s predecessor – sold to countries including India, Turkey and Brazil, and the Hermes 450, another medium-altitude long-endurance drone, to markets in the US, UK and elsewhere. And UAVs are key to Israel’s own defence doctrine. “When we confront our neighbours, we do it through imagination and intelligence, as it’s difficult to confront them in terms of quantity,” says Tommy Silberring, general manager of the drone division in government-owned Israeli Aerospace Industries, which developed the Eitan. “In our arena, we have a continuous problem of conflict with enemies a few kilometres away – it’s more like civil defence.”
Israel uses drones to secure borders, to accompany ground forces, gather intelligence and – most controversially – to carry out missile attacks against militant targets. “We get heavily criticised by the world – much more than any other country,” says Silberring. “But the only way for us to deal with hostile people and material is to take care of ourselves.”
Critics argue that operating UAVs involves an emotional disconnect that makes it all too easy to deliver death by remote control and campaigners have called for tighter regulation, noting that civilians frequently die in attacks. For proponents, however, they offer the ability to carry out what the industry calls “Triple d” missions – dirty, dull and dangerous – with no pilot risk and much more cheaply than a manned flight.
Not only that, they argue the operator is safe from battlefield stress and able to take more clear-headed decisions. “You have a great responsibility; if you say, ‘this man is armed’, your words mean that in a few seconds you switch to a bomb and finish his life,” says Omer, the 27-year-old second deputy squadron commander at Tel Nof, who talks blithely of being trained to hold fire if, for instance, the drone’s camera shows a fighter carrying both a child and a Kalashnikov. “But you are more relaxed, there is no physical danger, the data is cleaner,” he continues. “I think most of the time you probably make a better decision than if you were airborne.”
The drones are operated from Ground Control Stations, a series of metal huts tucked away in a corner of the airbase. Inside, each unit smells and looks like an office cubicle, complete with carpeted walls, whiteboard and lack of natural light (there’s another classified GCS nearby: sleek, matt-black and hi-tech). Omer carries out at least one four-hour mission here daily. Entering the co-ordinates of the route is simple; it takes 20 minutes to get from Jerusalem to Gaza. And it’s hard to imagine a battlefield engagement more distant from the bayonet-in-the-guts of previous generations.
The Israelis say they take extreme care to reduce civilian casualties, but figures don’t seem to bear this out. Human Rights Watch reported that 87 civilians were killed in 42 UAV attacks during the fighting in Gaza between December 2008 and January 2009.
Israel’s first battlefield UAV was developed after its hard-won victory of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. The initial model was delivered in 1979 and the first mission was in 1981. By the time of the 1982 Lebanon war, the system was mature.
In Israel, the loop between the army and civilians is a tight one. All men who complete mandatory military service are liable to do annual reserve duty and most of the engineers and operators serve in UAV departments. Eli Dotan, senior director of unmanned aerial systems at Elbit, Israel’s largest non-governmental defence organisation, boasts of the thought that goes into “de-skilling the system”. “You don’t need to have an A-level to fly a UAV, a GCSE will do – or even not. I took my eight-year-old son in front of a simulator and he did very well,” he notes.
The parallels with playing a video game are impossible to ignore. “You ever played Angry Birds? It’s just like that,” says an operator at the Palmachim air base, trying to explain the catapult-style launching mechanism for the Skylark mini-UAV, the smallest in the Israeli stable. Powered by electricity, it is completely silent. Looking like nothing more than a model aircraft, it has a daytime viewing range of up to 300m, used for intelligence gathering, escorting or guiding artillery or attack helicopters. Operated by a team of four, it takes less than seven minutes to set up and launch.
Ori Gonen, 36, established Skylark operations here in October 2010. “The IDF wants every battalion to have a Skylark, and every brigade to have a UAV,” he says. And this movement to increase UAV usage and integrate it into the army is spreading, not only in Israel. Dotan notes that “the US declared last year that for the first time the number of UAV operators trained was larger than air force pilots, and this is a trend”. So could fighter aircraft be replaced with UAVs entirely? Significant barriers remains, not least that a normal aircraft has a built-in see-and-avoid capability – if a pilot sees something irregular, they can avoid a collision. That’s something that the UAV, with its ground-based operator, doesn’t have – yet.
Israel is looking into how such a capability can be integrated into the system. That’s a priority, along with technology allowing inbuilt UAV computers to identify images of interest, and stealth systems are in development to make detection near-impossible. “Sometime in the future we will have the technology to create everything with an unmanned platform,” says a very senior IAF officer from his office deep in the Kirya, the army headquarters in Tel Aviv. “I believe that truly, the era of manned aircraft is limited.”
Drop the pilot: Civilian UAVs
The development of the UAV civilian market has been slow – something the industry puts down to psychological squeamishness by civil aviation authorities, akin to early resistance to driverless trains. Lots of civilian pilots, after all, perform the same role as taxi or train drivers, and can similarly only work a certain number of hours per shift. Why is a highly trained pilot necessary for mundane cargo flights? And why risk extra lives when it comes to air, sea or fire rescue? Then there are tedious tasks such as monitoring traffic, patrolling borders and checking powerlines, not to mention a myriad of agricultural purposes.
“Over 90 per cent of UAV use is military but this would change if the safety community could be persuaded that everything could be regulated,” says Eli Dotan, senior director of unmanned aerial systems at Elbit.