IDF’s ‘sky riders’ fly high under first female commander

Artillery Corps’ elite drones unit sheds light on its operations as two new UAV models are set to be put to use

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

As rabbis and politicians squabble over the role of women in the Israel Defense Forces, the first female commander of the IDF’s “sky riders” is leading the unit to greater heights, with two new types of drones designed to provide longer flight time and higher-quality intelligence gathering capabilities.

Lt. Col. Reut Rettig-Weiss took command of the Artillery Corps’ elite Sky Riders Unit, also known by its Hebrew acronym Rochash, this past July.

The unit, which was officially formed in 2010, gathers intelligence before and during missions using small, relatively low-cost drones, known in English as Skylarks and in Hebrew as Sky Riders.

“It’s hard for me to think of a recent major operation that we didn’t take part in,” Rettig-Weiss’s deputy, Maj. Nimrod, told The Times of Israel on Monday. (For security reasons, the major can only be identified by his first name.)

Soldiers from the IDF’s Sky Riders Unit launch a Skylark drone during an exercise in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

According to Nimrod, this included the Israel Police’s raid on a house in the Palestinian city of Jenin last week, during a search for the terrorists believed to be responsible for a shooting attack earlier this month that killed an Israeli man. They also were involved in the army’s recent activities around the Gaza Strip, searching for and destroying terror groups’ attack tunnels that enter Israeli territory from the coastal enclave.

“The need for [visual intelligence] has changed. There are more tunnels now, more enemies hiding among a civilian population,” he said.

An Israeli soldier holds a Skylark drone during the search for three Jewish teenagers near Hebron, in the West Bank, June 14, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“This platform has broad capabilities to address this,” he said.

Lest he run afoul of the military censor, Nimrod refrained from discussing in too fine a detail the intelligence-collection capabilities of the Skylark drones, but said, “Let your imagination run wild.” He was similarly mum on the drone’s potential offensive abilities.

To provide additional examples, the military on Monday released video footage from two operations for which Skylark drones provided intelligence.

In one, the small, fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicle flies over southern Syria to help direct Israeli artillery fire at a Syrian army position, after a mortar shell fired from the area struck the Israeli Golan Heights. The army would not reveal the exact date of the incident, but said it took place in 2017.

The second operation, an arrest on September 12, also took place in Jenin, but was unrelated to last week’s raid. In the footage, Israeli troops can be seen surrounding a house in the Palestinian city, and moving in to arrest the suspect. The drone then followed the soldiers on their way out of the city to ensure they left the area safely.

The 20 teams that make up the Sky Riders Unit are spread throughout the army’s Northern, Central and Southern Commands. A select group of soldiers has also been specially trained to take part in missions alongside the IDF’s Commando Brigade, including during an exercise last month, Nimrod said.

The unit is made up of both male and female soldiers, who serve in gender-segregated teams.

“The female soldiers participate in every aspect of the fighting, cross the borders and take an equal part in operational activities,” Rettig-Weiss told reporters on Monday.

The main difference between them is that the male soldiers take part in missions that require them to carry the Skylark drone and accompanying gear, which can weigh up to half their body weight, on their backs, while female soldiers carry out missions where the equipment can be transported in vehicles.

Lt. Col. Reut Rettig-Weiss, commander of the Artillery Corps’ Sky Riders Unit and the army’s first female combat battalion commander

Collectively, the Sky Riders Unit clocks thousands of flight hours each year, and that figure is increasing by about 20 to 30 percent annually, Nimrod said.

As the Skylark drones are flown more and more, they’ve also had a propensity to crash more and more, in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip.

This past year, in particular, saw a period in the spring and summer in which drones were crashing at a higher rate than normal. But Nimrod said the unit and the army did not get overly “emotional” about them, as the drone is designed to be cheap, compared to full-scale unmanned aerial vehicles like the IDF’s Hermes 450 model.

He said the different crashes were the result of unrelated technical problems with the system, which have since been addressed.

“You’ll notice recently there haven’t been as many reports of crashes, even though our flying hours haven’t gone down,” Nimrod said.

Though the Skylark has been around since the unit was formed nearly a decade ago, it has been upgraded a number of times, allowing it to have longer flights and carry more-advanced cameras and detection systems. The current version is referred to as the Skylark 10.

It too will soon be improved, with an even higher-definition camera and improved flight capabilities, Nimrod said.

In addition, the unit has received a new, larger variety of drone to be used for more-complex missions. The new model is now referred to as the “sky galloper,” Nimrod said, but this is only a placeholder.

A new, larger model of the IDF’s Skylark drone in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The mazlat mahat — in Hebrew, brigade commander’s drone — and the Skylark 20 have both also been as temporary names for the new model, he said.

Both the improved Skylark 10 and the as-yet-unnamed larger drone are in the process of entering operational service and are expected to do so within the coming months, Nimrod said.

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