Israel hosted its first international Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) exercise, according to an announcement by the Israeli Air Force on July 13. The drill is held by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and dubbed Blue Guardian. It follows a number of important achievements by Israel in new drone technology. Israel pioneered military drones in the 1980s and its Blue Guardian drill saw Israeli operators joined by those from the United States, France, Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
The exercise took place at Palmachim, a base in the dunes south of Tel Aviv. This is an area that has seen many test flights, drones, and also rocket tests in the past. It is a sprawling area of dunes and scrub brush on the coast. Israel says that the drill included the Hermes 450 drone that is built by Elbit Systems and called “Zik” by Israeli operators. “Crews will practice various scenarios, including assisting ground forces, performing contractual missions and gathering intelligence, and cooperating with various air forces,” the IDF said. Israeli Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin said that Israel was a pioneer in UAVs. “The exercise is a platform for learning and mutual fertilization. The exercise has significant significance and effects in positioning the Air Force in the international arena,” said Norkin.
The joint drill has major strategic importance for Israel. The IDF says it will succeed in “strengthening cooperation and mutual learning between Israel and the participating countries. The exercise takes place as part of the Air Force's annual training program aimed at strengthening the IDF's operational capability.”
Israeli drone technology is rapidly influencing the world. Israeli companies such as Israel Aerospace Industries, Elbit Systems, and Aeronautics, a subsidiary of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, sell their systems all over the world. Israeli companies also pioneered air defenses, such as Iron Dome, that can be used against drones. Israeli hi-tech innovators have likewise built small drones and Israel recently shot down a drone using a laser.
Another milestone for Israel was reached in the recent Gaza war where reports indicate that Israel used drone swarm technology for the first time. This combined networked drones, artificial intelligence, and Israel’s new multi-dimensional unit, as well as its new “Ghost Unit” that grew out of its Paratroop brigade. This is the tip of the spear in terms of Israeli technology being applied to the modern battlefield, where Israeli technology is pushing new uses for big data, such as automatic target recognition, using artificial intelligence and deep learning, and combining it with surveillance and precision strikes. Israel has called the last conflict the first “AI war,” meaning the first artificial intelligence war. While there were questions about whether the war showed the limits of precision warfare, in terms of not being able to reduce civilian casualties to near-zero as some critics wish Israel would do, the use of new technology enabled Israel to do more on the battlefield.
The new joint drill brings together the UK and United States which both have done joint F-35 drills twice this year. In addition, Italy came, a reminder that Israel sent F-35s to Italy in June for a joint drill. The message with the F-35 drills is that Israel’s 5th generation technology is working well with foreign militaries. Germany also attended the joint drone drill, a reminder that Israel is supplying Germany with its Trophy tank defense system.
Besides the F-35 joint drills and the drone exercise, Israel has also worked closely with Greece in recent years during Noble Dina naval drills and Israel sent aircraft to Greece’s INIOCHOS exercise this year. Israeli companies are also heading to Greece on July 13 for the Defense Exhibition Athens (DEFEA), where some 20 Israeli defense companies will attend. They will showcase drone technology, such as UVision’s anti-tank Hero-120 loitering munitions, IAI’s Mini-Harpy, Aeronautics Orbiter 4, and Rafael’s new Sea Breaker missile. Overall the selection of Israeli defense technology on display will illustrate not only Israel’s advances in drone technology but also its use of drones as loitering munitions, sometimes called kamikaze drones, and also Israel’s use of artificial intelligence and precision strike innovations.
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 (Gefen Publishing) and Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence, and the Battle for the Future (Forthcoming, Bombardier Books). Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman.
Image: Photo from the Israeli-hosted joint UAV drill shows operators next to a Hermes-450. (Courtesy, IDF)