Unmaned Aerial Vehicales in the Service of the Israeli Air Force / David Rodman

The Israel Air Force (IAF) has a rich history of employing unmanned aerial vehicles in battle with excellent results, and is set to expand significantly its drone operations in the coming decades, as the increasing sophistication of these vehicles makes them suitable for a rapidly expanding set of roles. In the future, the IAF's drone force could alter Israel's strategic landscape, reinforcing both its nuclear and conventional deterrence, as well as making it less dependent on American military assistance.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), often referred to colloquially as drones, can claim a lineage that dates back to the dawn of air warfare. Though quite rare in comparison to the enormous numbers of manned aircraft involved in the first and second world wars, UAVs participated in both conflicts, especially the latter, mainly as attack vehicles armed with high-explosive warheads. Not until the Vietnam War, however, did drones really find a defined niche on the battlefield, when the United States Air Force conducted thousands of reconnaissance sorties over hostile territory with UAVs.

With the possible exception of the United States, Israel is the country most closely identified with UAV operations in the post-World War II period. The Jewish state has actually employed drones in a variety of roles since the early 1970s, but it initially gained worldwide attention for its operations during the 1982 Lebanon War, in which its UAVs played a substantial part in the destruction of the Syrian integrated air defense system (IADS) erected in Lebanon. Recent asymmetric conflicts—the 2006 Second Lebanon War against Hizballah and the 2008–2009 Operation Cast Lead against Hamas—sparked renewed global interest in Israeli drone operations.

Nevertheless, outside of the international defense community—professional soldiers, military analysts and journalists, arms designers, and so on—familiarity with the Jewish state’s UAV operations, past and present, is not widespread. A brief review of Israel’s experience with drones, as well as a few thoughts about the future of its UAV force, then, seems entirely in order. The employment of these vehicles is set to expand dramatically in the years ahead, if the fighting in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza is any indication of what is just over the horizon.


The Israel Air Force (IAF) first employed UAVs on a large scale in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.[1] During the opening days of the conflict, the air force suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Egyptian and Syrian IADS. Instead of focusing its efforts on the destruction of these systems at the outset of hostilities, as envisaged in its prewar battle plans, the IAF was called upon to stem the advance of Egyptian and Syrian land forces in the Sinai and on the Golan, respectively, because the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), taken by surprise by the Arab assault, had not deployed to the fronts its reserve units, which constituted the bulk of its fighting power. The IAF, therefore, flew hundreds of sorties against the Egyptian and Syrian armies, regardless of the cost exacted by their IADS.

Once the IDF’s reserve units had reached the battlefields, blunted the Egyptian and Syrian offensives, and stabilized the fronts, the IAF sought to cut its losses to anti-aircraft fire. In its quest to do so, it began to employ its American-supplied Firebee and Chukar drones (Israel had yet to deploy any UAVs of indigenous design and manufacture) as decoys to draw this fire away from its aircraft, especially on the Sinai front. The fact that the IAF’s losses to anti-aircraft fire dropped dramatically after the first few days of hostilities suggests that the drones had a positive impact on the air war. Whether the IAF also employed its UAVs to gather photographic intelligence and to attack surface-to-air missile (SAM) and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) batteries is not known. In any case, its Yom Kippur War experience appears to have convinced the IAF that drones could be effective tools on the battlefield.

During the late 1970s, Israel fielded its first generation of homegrown UAVs, the Scout and Mastiff. Though small and unsophisticated by the standards of later generations of drones—these compact, twin-tailed, propeller-driven vehicles carried very limited payloads of rather simple electronic systems, mainly video cameras and, perhaps, infrared detection equipment—they nevertheless proved quite effective in service. Prior to the Lebanon War, these vehicles, in tandem with IAF reconnaissance aircraft, routinely monitored the Syrian IADS in Lebanon.[2] While expendable decoy drones drew anti-aircraft fire—a few of them were even shot down—other drones and reconnaissance aircraft gathered valuable information on the locations and electronic signatures of SAM batteries, which the IAF then integrated into its battle plan for destroying the Syrian IADS in a potential future confrontation.

With the commencement of hostilities in summer 1982, UAVs played a prominent part in the IAF’s spectacular elimination of the Syrian IADS in the Beqa’a, which saw about 20 SAM batteries knocked out on the first day of Operation Mole Cricket 19, the code name given to the plan to demolish that air defense network. Subsequent air strikes on following days wiped out additional batteries. The IAF also destroyed considerable numbers of AAA batteries.

The IAF’s drones filled several roles during the battle. First, decoy UAVs, especially the locally developed Samson, lured the Syrians into activating their radar systems. The radar systems then fell prey to air-delivered precision-guided weapons (PGMs), such as the American Standard anti-radiation missile (ARM), and ground-launched PGMs, such as the Israeli Keres ARM. Other air-delivered PGMs, like the Israeli Tadmit television-guided missile and the American GBU-15 television-guided glide bomb, added to this maelstrom. With the radar systems out of commission, aircraft and artillery smashed the SAM launch positions at will with a mixture of general-purpose bombs and shells, as well as cluster munitions. Second, one SAM battery may actually have been taken out by a UAV fitted with a warhead, perhaps a precursor to—or prototype of—the later Israeli Harpy attack drone.[3] Third, the IAF undoubtedly employed UAVs for real-time surveillance and target acquisition during the battle, as well as for post-battle damage assessment.

During the Lebanon War, UAVs also engaged in other missions on behalf of the Israeli war effort. They provided constant, real-time surveillance of Syrian air force bases, alerting IAF air battle controllers to the take-offs of Syrian aircraft. This information helped the controllers to vector IAF aircraft to optimal intercept coordinates, contributing to the lopsided score in a series of air battles, in which Israeli pilots shot down 80–100 Syrian aircraft without incurring a single loss. One UAV even scored a “no weapons kill” of its own through wild maneuvering, when a Syrian aircraft attempting to shoot it down collided with the ground after the pilot lost control.[4]

Finally, UAVs also assisted the IDF’s ground campaign. Drones furnished real-time intelligence on the location and movement of Syrian and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) units. Such data clearly assisted IDF commanders in planning and executing impressive tactical engagements, such as the large-scale defeat inflicted on Syrian armor by Israeli tanks and infantry around Lake Karoun. The employment of drones as part of the IDF’s ground campaign, in short, opened up a whole new avenue in air-land battlefield cooperation.

Buoyed by the accomplishments of its UAV force in the Lebanon War, Israel continued to develop more sophisticated and specialized drones over the following decades. During the 1990s, the IAF deployed both the Searcher 1 and 2, essentially significantly bigger and more capable versions of the earlier Scout and Mastiff, fitted with broader and more advanced arrays of electronic systems, as well as the Harpy attack drone intended primarily to destroy air defense radar systems. In the same decade, the Jewish state tinkered with the idea of developing a long-range, missile-launching drone to shoot down ballistic missiles in their “boost phase,” but apparently abandoned the effort on cost grounds.[5]

Since the early twenty-first century, the IAF has fielded the Hermes 450, Hermes 900, Heron, Heron TP, and, possibly, other (classified) UAV models. The Heron TP is an especially large vehicle—it has the wingspan of a Boeing 737 aircraft—that can carry a state-of-the-art suite of sensors, including electronic warfare systems. Some of these drones can apparently be armed with small missiles (such as the American Hellfire or the Israeli Spike) for attack missions.[6] The Heron TP is supposedly able to carry a one-ton bomb. Israel’s aerospace industry has also developed several models of hand-launched “micro-UAVs,” a number of which have been field-tested by IDF infantrymen for short-range intelligence-gathering missions.

Naturally, the accumulated knowledge gained by Israel in UAV design and deployment has not gone unnoticed by other countries. Israeli drone technology has been exported around the globe. Countries like the United States, India, Turkey, Great Britain, and Germany either have bought UAVs directly from the Jewish state or they have manufactured them at home under license. Furthermore, IAF drone operators routinely share their experiences with their foreign counterparts.[7] American drone operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular have benefited heavily from Israeli input.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the main operational theater of the IAF’s UAV force remained south Lebanon.[8] The air force’s drones played an especially active part in the Jewish state’s two large-scale anti-Hizballah incursions, Operation Accountability in 1993 and Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996. Even before the incursions, the IAF employed UAVs to locate Hizballah training camps, arms depots, command posts, and rocket launchers. During the fighting, drones provided real-time data on various targets, including moving vehicles in the process of transporting insurgents from one location to another and rocket launch sites. Air and artillery units then engaged these objectives with precision fire. It is unclear whether UAVs also “lit up” targets with laser designators for air-delivered PGMs to home in on. It is certain, on the other hand, that the round-the-clock, real-time intelligence furnished by drones proved effective in many instances in knocking out Hizballah targets, even if the incursions themselves ended inconclusively.

The participation of the IAF’s UAV force in IDF operations has grown ever larger in the latest rounds of Arab-Israeli hostilities, namely the so-called al-Aqsa Intifada, the Second Lebanon War, and Operation Cast Lead.[9] During the intifada, drones, most prominently, relayed real-time intelligence on terrorist positions and movements to air and ground units in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza around the clock. Though no information has been made public on specific UAV missions, it is likely that drones played an integral part in many “targeted attacks” by helicopter gunships on terrorist operatives and Qassam rocket launch sites. These attacks, collectively speaking, killed considerable numbers of high-ranking terrorists and disabled many Qassam batteries. Armed drones may even have executed some of these targeted attacks.

Perhaps the most extensive deployment of drones, however, occurred during the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead. During the first night of the Second Lebanon War, IAF aircraft essentially destroyed Hizballah’s long-range rocket force in 30 minutes of intensive air strikes.[10] UAVs, quite likely, not only helped to pinpoint the launch vehicles prior to this air assault, but also took part in target acquisition during the strikes and in battle-damage assessments after them. Real-time surveillance of medium- and short-range rocket launch sites by drones throughout the fighting also drastically shortened the “sensor-to-shooter” loop by the end of the war; IAF aircraft and helicopter gunships were able to destroy launchers within a mere two minutes of launch detections by UAVs. Armed drones may have carried out some attacks on Hizballah targets, while other UAVs may have “painted” these objectives with laser designators for air-delivered PGMs.

Drone deployment in Operation Cast Lead more or less followed the pattern established in the Second Lebanon War. The IAF’s UAV force primarily provided real-time intelligence to air and ground units for them to act upon in engaging Hamas targets, whether command posts, transport vehicles, rocket launchers, arms storage depots, or even individual terrorist operatives. Armed drones may once more have executed some strikes with Hellfire or Spike missiles, while other UAVs may have actively assisted aircraft or helicopter gunships by lighting up targets for PGMs.

Interestingly, around the time of Operation Cast Lead, unconfirmed news reports surfaced to the effect that IAF drones had engaged in sorties very far from Israel’s borders. One story reported that they were conducting electronic warfare missions over Iran in order to interfere with ballistic missile tests by jamming telemetry systems. Another story claimed that they were flying surveillance and battle-damage assessment missions over Sudan in support of an air strike there that destroyed a Hamas-bound Iranian arms convoy. The Heron and Heron TP drones are capable of staying in the air for at least 24–36 hours (most likely much longer), which means that they certainly have the range to engage in such missions.


In terms of the technological sophistication of its UAV force, Israel is unquestionably well ahead of the pack. Only the United States is in the same league. Likewise, in terms of the scope and effectiveness of the tactical uses to which it has put its UAV force, the Jewish state is far ahead of other countries. Again, only the United States is a peer in this regard. Nevertheless, even though the IAF considers drones to be an extremely valuable and cheap “force multiplier,” it has not divulged any concrete information about whether it intends to develop its UAV force into an instrument that will equal, or even surpass in certain respects, its manned aircraft fleet in the coming decades.[11]

The IAF, according to foreign reports, presently fields three drone squadrons in its order of battle.[12] These same sources credit it with possession of 15 fighter-bomber squadrons, four helicopter gunship squadrons, as well as a whole range of transport, training, intelligence-gathering, and electronic warfare squadrons. Moreover, the air force intends to add to its arsenal in the next decade from one to three fighter-bomber squadrons of the new F-35 Lightening II fifth-generation stealth aircraft (which would likely replace its oldest jets). Thus, at least for the near future, the air force order of battle appears as if it will be weighted heavily in favor of manned aircraft.

Such an emphasis would seem to make sense for now. Drones, after all, will not possess the capabilities to fulfill many of the roles of manned aircraft for years to come and may never be able to fill some of them. UAVs (with the potential exception of the very largest among them) cannot presently carry the types of—not to mention the quantities of—bombs and missiles necessary to destroy large, heavily fortified targets, such as Iran’s nuclear installations. Nor can they defend airspace against hostile aircraft and drones. Nor can they move soldiers and supplies around the battlefield or deep into an opponent’s hinterland. Nor can they provide as thorough intelligence-gathering and electronic warfare coverage as dedicated manned aircraft in some situations. The list of missions that drones either cannot yet execute at all or can only carry out less effectively than manned aircraft, of course, could be extended well beyond this handful of examples.

Still, the list of missions for which UAVs are fit has grown substantially over the past few decades, a reality to which the IAF is sensitive.[13] Furthermore, not only are drones much cheaper to build, equip, and fly than manned aircraft, but they also do not risk the lives and limbs of the men and women who operate them. And, unlike manned aircraft, they can remain over a target area for long periods of time in order to gather intelligence, to disrupt communications, or even to launch attacks. For these reasons alone, it would seem to make a great deal of sense for the Jewish state not only to expand considerably its drone force in size and capabilities, but also to formulate a general battle doctrine for their employment alongside its manned aircraft fleet. Whether in a full-scale conventional war, an asymmetric conflict, or a low-intensity counterinsurgency campaign, a massed UAV force able to swarm the battlefield with whole squadrons of drones dedicated to specific roles—such as attack, reconnaissance, and electronic warfare—would clearly be of tremendous assistance to the IAF in achieving Israel’s military objectives.

The IAF, naturally enough for an air force of a state perpetually in conflict with its neighbors, is a very security-minded organization. Its long-range work plan with respect to building up the numbers and capabilities of its drone squadrons is thus a carefully guarded secret. Similarly, though it is likely that the air force has given sustained, in-depth thought to the formulation of a general battle doctrine for their employment, its thinking on this issue as well is a closely held secret.

For clues—albeit circumspect and sporadic—as to the direction in which the IAF may be headed in the realm of UAV warfare, however, one can turn to Israel’s premier aerospace think tank, the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, the research arm of the Israel Air Force Center (IAFC), a nongovernmental organization with close ties to the air force. The institute has a study center devoted to thinking about how drones can be employed on current and future battlefields.[14] Much of the Fisher Institute’s research on UAVs is also secret, but it has published some literature on drone warfare and has hosted at least one conference partially open to the public on the topic. At this gathering, active and retired senior IAF officers indicated that, while the air force does not yet have quite enough confidence to entrust drones with its most vital missions, it is definitely committed to the process of making them an ever larger part of future operations, including attack sorties.[15]


A large and robust UAV force has the decided potential to alter Israel’s strategic landscape in the future, with implications for both nuclear and conventional deterrence. In respect to the former, drones could buttress deterrence in two distinct ways. First, a sizable fleet of long-range, highly advanced reconnaissance drones could supplement the Jewish state’s growing surveillance satellite capabilities. The ability of UAVs to hover over a target area for long periods means that they could effectively serve as “gap fillers” for space-based platforms that almost certainly could not remain “on station” for the same duration of time.[16] This capacity would be particularly valuable during a crisis situation. Drones, for example, could continually monitor Iranian ballistic missile launch sites. If linked to active (e.g., the Arrow anti-ballistic missile interceptor) and passive (e.g., warning sirens) defenses, UAVs could enhance Israel’s ability to counter a nuclear (or biological or chemical) weapons strike with ballistic missiles. Aware of this capability, a potential attacker, such as Iran or Syria, would have to add this consideration to its decision-making calculus before deciding upon a strike.

Second, drones could enhance the Jewish state’s nuclear deterrence by reinforcing its “second strike” capability.[17] Though Israel, according to media reports, already possesses a potent retaliatory capability—one based upon a triad of submarine-based, nuclear-armed cruise missiles; land-based, nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles; and air-delivered nuclear bombs—UAVs could nevertheless bolster this asset. Drones configured either to deliver nuclear weapons (e.g., via air-launched cruise missiles) or to serve as the actual attack vehicles (e.g., as super-smart, super-destructive descendants of the German V-1) could strengthen the aerial component of the triad. UAVs require much less ground infrastructure than manned aircraft and can therefore operate from comparatively small and remote sites that would be hard to locate, let alone hit. They would thus be highly likely to survive a first strike. Once again, a potential attacker would have to take this consideration into account before deciding upon a strike.

In respect to conventional deterrence, drones could augment Israel’s overall qualitative edge over its opponents on the battlefield in the decades ahead. Many experts maintain that fifth-generation aircraft, such as the F-35, essentially represent the end of the line for manned fighter-bomber development. Though UAVs may never entirely displace manned aircraft over the battlefield, they are in many ways the wave of the future with respect to aerial warfare. This trend augurs rather well for the Jewish state, as it is presently far ahead of its opponents in the realm of drone warfare. Moreover, this technological and doctrinal gap, in all likelihood, will only grow wider in the coming years, as Israel is in a position to expand its capabilities in this area at a much faster pace than its opponents.

Finally, over time, UAVs could modify somewhat the dynamics of the American-Israeli patron-client relationship. The national security threats faced by the Jewish state are quite long-standing, multifaceted, and serious. This dangerous political environment, coupled with the state’s limited economic capacity, means that Israel will remain dependent on American security assistance indefinitely; however, the build-up of a large and powerful drone force could lessen the magnitude of that dependence. Israel, after all, is most dependent on the United States in regard to the supply of advanced fighter-bombers. To the extent that these aircraft are replaced in the future by indigenous UAVs, there will be a concomitant reduction in Israel’s reliance on American assistance. Less dependence on security assistance from the United States, in turn, could lead to greater freedom of action for the Jewish state in a crisis situation where its national interests and those of its benefactor do not necessarily coincide.

Former IAF commander David Ivri has commented that:

Changes in force structure must come about by evolution, by selecting the proper pace for activating these changes. The selection of the pace of change in itself demands serious thought and an orderly decision process, and such a process will result in the optimal decisions. If this is not done, we may find ourselves in combat situations in which we will be required to perform immediate upheavals—that is, drastic changes in doctrine and courses of action that will generally be less effective and more expensive. Therefore, it will be preferable to make changes in force structure at preliminary stages, so that they can be done at the correct evolutionary pace.[18]

The limited amount of information about the IAF’s drone force in the public domain suggests that the air force has taken Major General Ivri’s advice to heart.

*David Rodman is the author of Arms Transfers to Israel: The Strategic Logic Behind American Military Assistance (Sussex Academic Press, 2007) and Defense and Diplomacy in Israel’s National Security Experience: Tactics, Partnerships, and Motives (Sussex Academic Press, 2005).



[1] A concise description of Israeli drone operations during the Yom Kippur War is found in John F. Kreis, “Unmanned Aircraft in Israeli Air Operations,” Air Power History, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Winter 1990), p. 46. The Israel Air Force has lately changed its name to the Israel Air and Space Force (IASF), but this article will refer to the former throughout.

[2] For concise descriptions of Israeli drone operations before and during the Lebanon War, see Kreis, “Unmanned Aircraft,” pp. 47–49; Benjamin S. Lambeth, Moscow’s Lessons from the 1982 Lebanon Air War (Santa Monica: The Rand Corporation, 1984), pp. 4–8; and Ralph Sanders, “Israeli Military Innovation: UAVs,” Joint Forces Quarterly, No. 33 (Winter 2002–03), p. 115. Until the early 2000s, the IDF’s military intelligence arm, A’MAN, also carried out drone sorties. The relationship of this UAV force to the IAF’s own, as well as its specific role(s), has not been disclosed publicly.

[3] For this claim see Richard A. Gabriel, Operation Peace for Galilee: The Israeli–PLO War in Lebanon (New York: Hill and Wang, 1984), p. 99. Israel has since produced a highly sophisticated, longer-range, “hunter–killer” follow-up to the Harpy called Harop. The IAF also has in its arsenal an air-launched “loitering” weapon system—that is, a weapon system that can linger over a target area for a period of time—known as Delilah.

[4] Briefing by UAV operator Captain G of 200 “First UAV” Squadron, Palmachim Air Force Base, Israel, June 22, 2009.

[5] See Sanders, “Israeli Military Innovation,” p. 117. Boost phase refers to the moments just after lift off, as the missile is accelerating away from the launch vehicle.

[6] Israel has refused either to confirm or deny persistent media reports that the IAF uses armed drones for attack missions. When asked whether the IAF possessed such drones, UAV squadron commander Lieutenant Colonel N of 200 “First UAV” Squadron pointedly refrained from answering the question at a briefing at Palmachim Air Force Base, Israel, June 23, 2008.

[7] Ibid. Foreign officers, according to Lieutenant Colonel N, visit Palmachim on a regular basis to learn from the IAF.

[8] For the role of Israeli UAVs in south Lebanon during this period see Shmuel Gordon, The Vulture and the Snake: Counter-guerrilla Air Warfare, the War in Southern Lebanon (Ramat Gan: Begin–Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, 1998), p. 57.

[9] To get a sense of drone participation in these conflicts see, for example, Arie Egozi, “Israel Praises UAV Abilities During Operation Change of Direction Anti-Hezbollah Campaign,” Flight International, August 29, 2006, http://www.flightglobal.com (accessed June 8, 2010).

[10] Concise descriptions of the Jewish state’s counter-rocket air campaign are found in Anthony H. Cordesman, Preliminary “Lessons” of the Israeli–Hezbollah War (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2006); David Makovsky and Jeffrey White, Lessons and Implications of the Israel–Hizballah War: A Preliminary Assessment (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2006); and Noam Ophir, “Look Not to the Skies: The IAF vs. Surface-to-Surface Rocket Launchers,” Strategic Assessment, Vol. 9, No. 3 (November 2006). Strategic Assessment is a publication of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

[11] On drones as a cheap force multiplier in IAF eyes see Arie Egozi, “Israel Broadens UAV Use with Advanced Designs,” Flight International, February 11, 2008, http://www.flightglobal.com (accessed July 22, 2010).

[12] See, for example, the IAF order of battle at http://www.scramble.nl. The air force does not release official figures about the number of squadrons (manned or unmanned) or about the number of craft per squadron in its order of battle; therefore, the following figures are estimates.

[13] See Arie Egozi, “Israel Broadens UAV Use.”

[14] To get a sense of the Fisher Institute’s research mandate see its website at http://www.fisherinstitute.co.il/eng. Perhaps the institute’s most high-profile UAV-related project to date is the conceptualization of a medical evacuation drone that would transport wounded soldiers from “hot” battlefields where manned helicopters could not safely land.

[15] See Barbara Opall-Rome, “Israel AF Hones Manned-UAV Mix,” Defense News, July 7, 2008, http://www.defensenews.com (accessed August 9, 2010). For an insightful discussion of the technical and operational complexities of drone employment in IAF operations see Asaf Agmon and Tal Inbar, “UAVs Heading Where?: Future Trends in the Development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Their Operational Use,” Strategic Analysis (February 2006). Strategic Analysis is a publication of the Fisher Institute.

[16] Indeed, the IAF already considers drones to be “substitutes” for satellites under certain circumstances. See Egozi, “Israel Broadens UAV Use.”

[17] A country with a second strike capability is one whose arsenal of nuclear (or biological or chemical) weapons can survive an opponent’s first strike with nuclear (or biological or chemical) weapons, permitting it to then respond with a devastating counterstrike of its own.

[18] David Ivri, Thoughts on Unmanned Airborne Vehicles (Herzliya: The Fisher Institute of Air and Space Strategic Studies, 2002), p. 4.

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