AIRPORT CITY, Israel (JTA) — A soldier sits in an office chair in an air-conditioned metal chamber staring at two screens side by side. One shows a map with a moving dot. The other displays a video feed. Next to the soldier are three more identical stations.
The soldier isn’t an air traffic controller but a pilot, and his aircraft is called an unmanned aerial system, more commonly known as a drone.
Welcome to the next generation of the Israeli Air Force.
Israel long has relied on superior air capability to maintain a military edge in the Middle East, and its pilots are among the most respected soldiers in the county.
Now Israel’s drone industry is booming, and experts predict that within decades, manned flight largely will be a thing of the past – especially in risky combat missions. During Israel’s Pillar of Defense operation in Gaza last year, Israeli drones reportedly played a key role on the battlefield.
“Already today we see that the technology can work faster and better than our five senses, which are limited,” Tzvi Kalron, a marketing manager for Israel Aerospace Industries, told JTA in an interview during a recent tour of a drone facility. “When you take away the human factor in battle and send tools that know how to do it better, it’s easier.”
With two large drone manufacturers — Israel Aerospace Industries, a government company, and Elbit Systems — Israel is the world’s second-largest producer of drones, behind the United States, and the world’s largest exporter of drones.
IAI began manufacturing drones in 1974, employs 1,000 people in its drone division and sells about $400 million worth of drones per year. The company exports to 49 countries, including NATO allies fighting in Afghanistan, such as Canada and Australia. The client list also reportedly includes some US rivals, such as Russia, and developing countries like Nigeria.
About one-fifth of IAI’s drones stay in Israel. They range from the 5-ton Heron TP, which can fly as high as 45,000 feet and stay in the air for 52 hours, to the handheld Mosquito micro-drone, which weighs less than a pound and travels nearly a mile. The Heron looks like an oversized, gray remote-control airplane, with a radar sticking out of its top and, of course, no space for a pilot.
Along with Air Force drones, the Israel Defense Forces plans to incorporate drones in infantry units. Soldiers may carry a disassembled mini-drone in two backpacks and, when patrolling cities, assemble the drone, launch it by slingshot and monitor it by remote control. The Ghost, as this drone is known, weighs nine pounds and can help the unit eliminate blind spots and, according to IDF spokesman Eytan Buchman, overcome the “fog of war.”
“You can’t see around the corner, you don’t know what’s on the other side of the hill,” Buchman said. “It’s definitely helpful when you’re facing guerrilla opponents and rely heavily on the element of surprise.”
He added that drones help save civilian lives by identifying civilians near a bomb’s target and helping reroute the bomb to avoid them.
The Ghost’s only protruding feature is its most expensive part: a small, round camera that sticks out of the drone’s underbelly. To protect the camera, the Ghost flips upside-down before it lands.
Kalron said IAI hopes to expand its drone options in the coming years, developing stealth drones that are harder to see and hear, and working on a micro-drone with wings that flap like a butterfly — a concept known as biomimicry. IAI also is expanding drones’ civilian uses, like surveillance of large crowds and stadiums.
IAI’s drones conduct surveillance, take photographs, and record audio and video, according to Kalron. He would not discuss the drones’ combat capabilities; IAI’s website includes the payload limits for drones.
Drone expert Arie Egozi of the online publication Israel Homeland Security told JTA that “from a technological standpoint, every drone” can shoot missiles. “You put bombs under the wings and it shoots them,” Egozi said.
Some critics argue that the use of drones raises serious moral and legal problems. The debate has been particularly heated on the American use of unmanned vehicles for targeted killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
While drones are not without their Israeli critics, they have provoked far less controversy here than in the United States. For many Israelis, a future where planes fly unmanned and pilots are at less risk of death or capture is a welcome development.
“If you can take the pilots out of danger, of course it’s better,” said Uri Aviv, a civilian flight instructor who spent 15 years in the Israeli Air Force. “The moral question is about hitting the target, not the type of weapon. It doesn’t matter if you use a cannon, a tank, a plane or a drone. A pilot can’t see who he’s hitting — it’s the same thing with a drone.”
The biggest concern raised by drones, says Hebrew University philosophy professor Moshe Halbertal, is that their pinpoint accuracy raises the bar for the soldiers operating them. Freed from the stress and uncertainty of flying a plane, Halbertal said, soldiers must take more time to “identify who is a legitimate target” and review the decision before launching a strike.
Halbertal said he doubts that “those who operate drones will be much quicker in using weapons” than traditional pilots.
Egozi said the bigger question for Israel is about the efficacy of exporting to countries such as Russia, which has provided technology to Israeli adversaries like Iran and Syria. Israel’s agreements with Russia have required pledges that Russia not sell certain missile technology to Iran.
Every IAI export deal must receive Israeli Defense Ministry approval before being finalized, according to Kalron.
He said he looks forward to a day when 95 percent of army aviation is unmanned and the Israeli Air Force is not needed.
“In 20 or 30 years they’ll fly drones on commercial flights,” Kalron said. “It’s a trend that’s developing quickly. Technology is superior than all human abilities.”