(January 31, 2018 / JNS) A drone unit in the Israeli military is becoming more influential by the week as it takes on a growing array of missions.
The Skylark Unit, founded in 2010, began as a unique concept based on allowing the IDF’s Artillery Corps, rather than the Israeli Air Force, to run its own aerial service, providing intelligence assistance to ground units below.
At any given time, the Skylark Unit could be hovering over a nighttime counter-terrorism raid in a Palestinian city. It directs ground units to the location of security suspects on the run, using thermal imaging to inform infantry soldiers on where to go.
The Skylark Unit also recently played a role in IDF strikes on Assad regime targets in Syria, directing precise firepower at Syrian artillery guns after they fired into Israel.
Since its founding, the drone unit has learned how to work with all ground forces as well as with the Israeli Navy. Now, it is expanding its traditional role, which was based on counter-terrorism missions, to include full-scale war fighting. It is training with combat brigades, simulating crossing into enemy territory to provide intelligence support.
“We dedicated a whole company for the commando brigade,” Maj. Aharon Faran, commander of the Skylark Unit’s training school, told JNS. The commando brigade is a group of elite IDF special forces trained to travel deep into enemy territory on elite missions. The Skylark operators would travel with them on such missions, bringing their drones for support.
The unit runs two types of unmanned aircraft, both made by Israeli defense company Elbit Systems. The Skylark 1 has been the flagship drone used by the unit so far. It is carried in parts by soldiers on backpacks, assembled on the spot and released into the air with the help of a sling.
This month, the Skylark 3, a larger version, is entering service. This drone requires vehicles for deployment and is launched from a vehicle-towed launcher. It can stay in the air for a far longer period of time and cover a much wider area, meaning that it can serve the intelligence needs of entire IDF brigades.
“The Skylark 3 will come with its own truck and [command] cabin. The whole way of activating it is different. This is still in the early phases,” Faran said.
Even the Skylark 1 is undergoing an upgrade, allowing it to direct firepower in a more effective manner and to help commanders control their forces.
“We are building an increasing number of scenarios for the unit,” said Faran.
Recently, female soldiers have enlisted in the unit. Instead of lifting half their body weight like their male counterparts, they will receive vehicles to move the Skylark 1 drone. “This way, we enable them to work in the unit,” Faran explained.
These changes seem apt for a unit that just received its first female commander, who can be identified only as Lieut.-Col. Reut for security reasons. “We see the female soldiers as taking a full part in operations, during routine times and emergencies,” she told Israel’s Channel 2 in recent days. “They will cross the border and do all that is necessary along with the combat crews,” she added.
As its real-life missions expand, the unit’s training school is adjusting itself accordingly. Faran described how, over the past six months, the school has started having newly arrived cadets simulate the enemy in the field during training drills.
“They are accompanied by intelligence personnel, to make this training as realistic as possible,” he said. “When the new cadets turn into experienced trainees, and, four months later, fly the drones in training, they see what it is like to be above, from the other side.”
Training includes learning how to navigate, use firearms and carry heavy weights before eventually flying the drone, using simulators and real flights.
As the unit looks ahead to becoming part of the IDF’s ground offensives, the training school has improved firearms training and instruction on combat skills in built-up areas, to better prepare the soldiers for what could lie ahead.
In the past year, there have been several reports of Skylark drones crashing during missions, but Faran said that this is simply a reflection of the increased usage of the platform.
“Most of these errors are technical, and a few that we found after inquiries are human errors. But it’s important to say that the flight hours are going up from year to year. We are currently at 1,000 flight hours a year, and this is continuing to rise. The number of technical faults matches this level of activity,” he said.
“This is a cheap and light platform,” Faran added. “When it falls in enemy territory, no intelligence damage is caused. The drone automatically erases its encrypted communications when it knows it’s coming down in enemy territory.”