The Israeli military on Wednesday decided to lift a long-standing ban on the publication of information regarding the Israel Defense Forces’ use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for airstrikes. The “revelation” is no surprise but does allow a freer discussion of the issue by media outlets.

Many of the reported Israeli targeted assassinations of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in the Gaza Strip were likely carried out using armed UAVs, as well as in other sectors in the region.

The three UAV platforms that form the backbone of the Israeli Air Force’s inventory and could also be used for strike operations are the Elbit-made Hermes 450, dubbed “Spark”; the Elbit-made 900 Hermes, a significantly larger aircraft dubbed “Star” in the Israeli Air Force; and the Israeli Aerospace Industries-made Heron 1 (dubbed “Trail”) and its newer version, the Heron TP (dubbed “Eitan”).

Israel is a global pioneer when it comes to using military drones and was the first country to use them to coordinate airstrikes in Lebanon in the early 1980s. The use of Israeli drones for intelligence-gathering and strike coordination is well-known; their use for directly striking targets has been out of range of public discourse until now.

During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, as Syrian and Egyptian surprise attacks resulted in many losses for IAF fighter jets, Israeli engineers at IAI worked intensively to search for new technological solutions that would give Israel a new kind of presence in the sky.

By 1974, they developed the Scout drone, which became a model for many future successors. The Scout was purchased by the IDF in 1977. It made its first operational debut in the First Lebanon War of 1982 when the UAVs were able to detect and transmit the location of targets to the IAF in real-time. All targets were hit in the space of 24 hours, marking a leap forward in strike capabilities.

The ability of UAVs to film and transmit target information in real-time was a revolution since prior to the Yom Kippur War, Israeli aircraft had to fly over enemy areas, photograph them and land before the film could be developed and analyzed, in a lengthy process.

Today, UAVs are fitted with cutting-edge intelligence-gathering payloads, allowing them not only to film and transmit in day and night conditions but also to eavesdrop on communications and detect electronic activities of the enemy.

But UAVs can and do also conduct their own airstrikes under the strict control of their operators—meaning that they can act on the very intelligence that they gather. UAV operators must undergo the same meticulous target clearance system that fighter-jet pilots must go through before striking.

While UAVs are slower than fighter jets, once they arrive over areas of interest, they can remain over them without attracting attention for lengthy periods, making them more evasive strike options.

Archive image of an Israeli Air Force Hermes 450 unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, and operator. Credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.

In hands of Hamas, Hezbollah and other terror armies

When the Second Intifada broke out in the year 2000, the IDF began opting for the usage of UAVs for counter-terrorism targeted strikes.

However, it is important to keep in mind that Israel’s adversaries are also making strides in the world of armed UAVs. Capabilities once reserved for major powers—the ability to fly munitions over a specific target and drop them or fly a suicide UAV into a target like a slow-moving guided missile—are now in the hands of Hezbollah, Hamas and other non-state terror armies.

According to Tal Inbar, a leading Israeli missile and space expert, Hezbollah imports industrially produced, sophisticated Iranian-made military drones that cost considerable sums to develop. Hezbollah’s drones include guided rockets that can be launched from the UAV at targets on the ground a few miles away, meaning they can fly over Southern Lebanon and hit targets in Israel.

Hamas is trying to get hold of such capabilities as well.

Iran, for its part, is producing a range of sophisticated long-range drones that can be armed with their own missiles; its drone industry has become a serious security challenge for regional security.

Armed UAVs have long become an essential battlefield component, and their influence is only set to grow in the coming years.


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