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IAF completes first multinational drone drill with 5 foreign militaries

Military says UAVs played key role in May’s Gaza conflict, amassing over 6,000 flight hours during 11 days of fighting

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Italian drone pilots fly a Hermes-450 unmanned aerial vehicle while an Israeli operator watches during an international exercise, dubbed Blue Guardian, which launched on July 12, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)
Italian drone pilots fly a Hermes-450 unmanned aerial vehicle while an Israeli operator watches during an international exercise, dubbed Blue Guardian, which launched on July 12, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli Air Force is seeking to cement its status as a world leader in the use of remote-controlled aircraft, hosting a large, multi-national drone exercise in central Israel this month, which it calls unprecedented.

“This is the first time that we are meeting with drone operators from around the world, conducting missions together, complicated missions of assisting ground troops, of locating and striking enemies, of joint operations with manned and remotely controlled aircraft,” said Brig. Gen. Yoav Amiram, commander of the IAF’s Palmachim Air Base, where the exercise was held.

The drill, dubbed Blue Guardian, kicked off on July 12 and ended on Thursday. Teams from Israel, the United States, France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom took part in the exercise, operating IAF Hermes-450 unmanned aerial vehicles. Approximately 20 representatives from other countries also observed the drill.

Amiram said the Israel Defense Forces relied on the air force’s drone expertise extensively during May’s conflict between Israel and Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip.

According to IDF figures, remotely controlled aircraft conducted 643 sorties during the 11-day battle, known as Operation Guardian of the Walls, with drones collectively amassing 6,231 flight hours — meaning on average, at any given time at least two dozen unmanned aerial vehicles were in the air over Gaza throughout the campaign.

“The UAV array conducted over 6,000 flight hours during Operation Guardian of the Walls, maintained operational continuity with many aircraft over the Strip, and basically allowed aerial forces of the air force and the entire IDF to operate in a complicated, populated battlefield in which we need to find the enemy and minimize collateral damage,” Amiram said.

An Israeli Hermes-450 unmanned aerial vehicle flies during an international exercise, dubbed Blue Guardian, which launched on July 12, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

Drones of all types were used extensively throughout the conflict, from larger models like the Hermes-450 and Hermes-900 — which can reportedly be used for both reconnaissance and attack missions — to smaller multi-rotor copter drones, some of which were used in a so-called drone swarm during the conflict.

The IDF hailed the Blue Guardian exercise, saying it has “strategic importance” because of the air force’s cooperation with foreign countries.

“The State of Israel is a pioneer in the field of UAVs. This exercise presents a platform for mutual study and growth. The exercise has national importance and influence in establishing the air force on the international level,” IAF chief Amikam Norkin said last week.

Drone pilots from five countries and Israel pose in front of a Hermes-450 unmanned aerial vehicle during an international exercise, dubbed Blue Guardian, which launched on July 12, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

In the first week of the two-week exercise, the foreign drone operators learned to operate the Israeli drones and conducted basic missions. In the second half, the pilots carried out more complicated flight scenarios, including cooperation with other IAF systems and aircraft.

Nine Israeli teams took part in the exercise, alongside two US Air Force teams, two Italian teams, one French team, one German team and one UK team.

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