People don’t understand drones, one of the graduates of an Israeli Air Force course for UAV operators says. She has just completed six months in training after joining the army and being accepted to a pilot’s course in the air force. Several months from now she will be operating Israel’s Hermes 450, a 550kg surveillance drone with a ten-meter wingspan. Her name cannot be released for security reasons.
Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) are becoming increasingly significant for hi-tech militaries like Israel. The country pioneered drones in the 1970s. Today Israel uses drones throughout its armed forces, from border patrol to long-distance missions. “The thing about drones that people don’t understand, it may be called ‘unmanned’ but it is not unmanned, because the drone cannot work or bring results unless there are people operating it; we are as valuable as a manned plane in sky,” says the recent graduate of the IAF’s course for Hermes 450 operators. “A Hermes 450 looks like a manned plane and it is mind blowing that the pilot is on the ground doing everything.”
The Hermes 450 has been called the “backbone” of Israel’s military drones, with a capability of staying aloft for 17 hours. According to Elbit Systems, which produces the Hermes 450, the multi-role UAV has sophisticated optics, and can perform many other functions such as collecting communications and electronic intelligence and perform large area scanning. By 2008 it had some 65,000 flight hours and today around 300,000. By contrast, the U.S. MQ-1 Predator had 500,000 hours under the belt in 2015. The IDF has upgraded its Hermes fleet over the years, and has added the Hermes 900 to its arsenal. The multiplicity of drones, from smaller quadcopters to the Skylark and Eitan give Israel a multi-tiered drone arm.
For the Hermes, the training seeks to impart several qualities to the recruits. They need to be responsible and take into account that they are flying an airplane in a sky with other aircraft. This can be a bit difficult from inside the command center, without the feel of being in the air. Second, the IDF says that it seeks to train its UAV pilots to work closely as part of a team and as part of a two-person crew. Last, they need to be able to work under pressure.
Trainees fly their drones often, sometimes two flights a day. The recent recruits, in their late teens and twenties, have the added benefit of being raised in an era with tablets and smartphones, so the kinds of technologies they see on screen are more in line with what they’ve been doing since they were children. A captain in the unit who is in charge of the training says that recruits today are used to more interactive displays and quick maneuvering around these kinds of technology. “I think being a drone operator is first of all is the ability to multitask, like talking and driving, you need first of all to be able to operate the drone and also using the camera and also need to be a professional at this, but you also have to speak to other drones and aerial control units and also speak to your team [on the ground] and you need to make quick decisions and it requires you multi-task quickly,” says the captain.
Trainees learn basic operations of the platform. The drone mostly flies itself, correcting for wind and other issues, leaving the operator to focus on the mission. A live-feed of data and imagery is collected to be used to identify threats or aid ground forces or conduct other missions. Another advantage is that the crew can be swapped out in the middle of the mission, unlike in a plane which would have to return to base. Does this mean a future air force won’t need the increasingly expensive fifth-generation combat aircraft that countries are buying, like the F-35? “We always need manned planes, some need a person in the plane,” says the drone operator recruit. But there are many missions that can be manned from afar today.
One of the issues the operator faces is that since they are not in the aircraft, if something goes wrong they have to be able to deal with it and identify the problem without being able to see the whole vehicle. They don’t have a full picture. The drones can crash or be shot down, as the United States learned when a Global Hawk was shot down by Iran in June. For instance, in 2013 the IDF reportedly crashed a Hermes 450 drone on purpose that had malfunctioned near the Egyptian border. Another Israeli drone allegedly crashed in Lebanon in 2018 and Hezbollah published photos claiming it was a Hermes 450. These drones have also been photographed using zoom lenses over Gaza and Lebanon, with locals claiming they are armed. Israel is tightlipped about these issues and doesn’t disclose details about its armed drones.
For the new pilots there is a sense of excitement to be in a program that has an effect over so many aspects of security and modern war. “It’s super relevant every day.” The officer who oversees the course says that it’s important to understand the influence these vehicles have today. “Some think it is autonomous and works on its own as a robot, but you need to understand it is like an airplane but the pilot is far away and gives us advantages or disadvantages but the person operating it has a lot of influence on the battlefield and mission and how the mission is done.” One can have the best hi-tech weapon but if the operators don’t understand how to use it correctly then the mission on the ground will not go as planned. This is where Israel is today in terms of planning how to raise the next generation of UAV pilots that will confront more complex threats than the last generation.
Israel’s success on the drone frontier also has implications for the companies that make them, like Elbit System. Sales of drones has exploded in recent years. Israel’s defense exports were $7.5 billion in 2018. UAVs are the second biggest sector of sales, accounting for fifteen percent. This increasingly includes large purchases in Asia. There is growing competition, as evidenced by the numerous Chinese-made drones that have shown up in places like Libya’s conflict, and other countries like Turkey that are making their own drones. But as a pioneer and a country using the drones in military operations, Israel is at the cutting edge of this military technology.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (forthcoming Gefen Publishing). Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.