Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Isrel's 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



*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).


MERIA Journal Staff
Publisher and Editor: Prof. Barry Rubin
Assistant Editor: Yeru Aharoni
MERIA is a project of the Global Research in International Affairs
(GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary University.

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