October 20, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

In the war against Hamas, Israeli drones are key. Here is why

Israel’s Hermes 450 Zik drones of the 161 Squadron played a key role defending Israel from Hamas terrorists
October 20, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

In the war against Hamas, Israeli drones are key. Here is why

Israel’s Hermes 450 Zik drones of the 161 Squadron played a key role defending Israel from Hamas terrorists

In the early hours of the war against Hamas, Israeli pilots who fly large drones played a key role in helping to identify and track terrorists and defend the state.

Waves of attackers assaulted the border with Gaza on the morning of October 7. It is estimated that around 2,900 Hamas members and others from Gaza entered Israel through 29 points along the security fence.

They attacked 20 communities, killing more than 1,000 people. Hundreds of IDF soldiers and Israeli police officers were killed or wounded.

The disaster of October 7 has brought deep trauma to Israel, and the country is still searching for answers.It is not clear how Hamas will be defeated and whether a new front will be opened by Iran-backed extremists against Israel.

However, in any war that comes, Israel’s elite drone operators will play a role as they did on October 7.

The pilots who fly the Hermes 450 operate the unmanned aircraft from Palmachim. This is a windswept base that sits amid the dunes south of Tel Aviv. On one side of the area is a beach, which is not far from IKEA and Rishon Lezion.

The Magazine spoke to two pilots from the 161 Squadron, which was founded in the 1980s and once flew helicopters; but after Israel became a pioneer in drones, it transitioned to fly the new vehicles.

Drones are important because they can be used in what is known as “dull, dirty and dangerous” operations. They were invented in Israel after the Yom Kippur War.

This fact is important to our narrative because it was the difficulties that Israel faced against Egypt in 1973 that led experts to design unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that could help provide surveillance over the battlefield and relay real-time intelligence so that Israel could neutralize air defenses and strike enemies.

However, the enemy has changed over the years. In the 1970s and 1980s, the enemy had advanced Soviet-era air defenses such as surface-to-air missiles. Today, it is more complex.

For instance, Israel now faces Hamas and Hezbollah – two terrorist armies in Gaza and Lebanon. Hamas is armed with AK-47s and RPGs as its standard weapons. That means drone operators do a variety of tasks, many of them secret, that help neutralize the Hamas threat in complex ways.

Drone pilots call their machines “aircrafts.” This distinguishes these drones from smaller drones that Israel also uses. The country now has a variety of soldiers and units that use unmanned systems. The 161 Squadron flies the Hermes 450, built by Elbit Systems, one of Israel’s defense giants. Elbit calls it a “Tactical Long Endurance UAS.”UAS means “unmanned aerial system.” It is described as “a multi-role high-performance tactical UAS and the primary platform of the IDF in counter-terror operations.” Hermes 450 is “a mature and combat-proven UAS with over 300,000 operational flight hours and a class leading safety and reliability record.”

The machine is packed full of sensors and different capabilities that enable it to carry out surveillance and airstrikes.

The role of drones in airstrikes

ISRAEL ONLY recently revealed that it uses drones for airstrikes. The Hermes 450 is called the Zik. It weighs about 550 kg. and can fly for 17 hours at a time.

Obviously, a long flight time like that means that different pilots might operate the drone during one long flight. This is why drones are useful. Unlike piloted aircraft where the pilots get tired and have to land, the drone can fly, and fly, and fly, and fly some more.

Drone pilots operate them from large containers that have all the equipment they need.Screens show them various details they need from the battlefield, and they fly the drone while also being in touch with other operators and forces.

The Magazine spoke to two pilots – one male and one female. They cannot reveal their full names for security reasons.

G, the male pilot, describes how the aircraft can do many types of jobs on the battlefield, such as surveillance and information gathering, to provide a better picture of what is happening below. This protects Israel’s borders from enemies.

G began the pilots’ course in Israel, eventually realizing that he would not end up as the pilot of a manned aircraft, and now he flies drones. The course is long and the work can be difficult. He has been flying drones for four years.

He says the operations and missions change each time the aircraft go up.This can mean acquiring intelligence, or using cameras and carrying out strikes. The drone unit is also in touch with other forces, such as ground or intelligence.

He looks back 11 days to the “Black Shabbat,” as October 7 is now known, the day Hamas terrorists broke through the security fence, entered Israel, and committed unspeakable crimes.

The pilots operated in the same difficult situation as the ground forces and everyone else in Israel who were surprised by the massive attack. They had to bring their Hermes drones to the fight and try to provide support for the forces below.

The terrorists had attacked army posts along the border, as well as observation towers. The eyes in the sky were needed even more on that dark day to help provide a picture from above of what was happening below. This meant monitoring the terrorists entering Israel and carrying out the strikes. It was the most complex thing that G had experienced in his career.

“It was difficult,” he recalls.

Like others in Israel, the pilots never thought this kind of attack would take place. They had to operate the Hermes drones in situations where Israeli civilians, soldiers, and terrorists were all in close proximity down below.

This presented new challenges and required extreme precision in terms of making sure which individuals were part of which force and group below.

“We tried to defend our forces; it was something out of the normal.”

They worked closely with the ground forces to a degree that goes beyond what pilots and operators of these aircraft usually do, and were in constant contact with those on the ground as the situation developed on October 7.

IN A SECOND interview, one of the female pilots also discussed her role.“On Shabbat in the morning there were rockets fired at Israel, and we all went to the operations. All the pilots came – those who were at home and at the base,” she recalls.

They got all the aircraft they could muster in the air. This meant many more than usual would be flying at the same time.

Throughout the next 24 hours they worked non-stop to defend Israel and neutralize the terrorists.

They also did unique work in making connections to civilians. This was important to understand the situation and aid the ground forces who were fighting tough battles to re-take communities and save lives.

The pilot describes the excellent connections with the ground forces and civilians during that first day of fighting.

She says morale is high in the unit, and they are proud of the heroes who fought that day.They are still using the drones to defend the borders of Israel and conduct operations over Gaza. She says again, “Morale is very high.”

She also says that reservists have arrived to the unit, including those who returned from abroad to make sure the unit can perform all its missions.

The pilots also had to deal with the fact that on that dark day, they knew that the enemy was taking hostages. They also helped provide information to the ground forces so that the IDF could save civilians and hostages from being kidnapped where possible.

It was a huge crisis.

“We got every plane in the sky with munitions to strike as many terrorists [as possible],” she says. Dozens of terrorists were killed.

The UAVs flew over communities along the border, such as Be’eri where the terrorists killed 100 people. “No one had imagined that they would have to deal with something like this. What was important to understand was who was a threat and who was a civilian and who was a ground force. It was very complicated,” the pilot says.

Now the pilots, like many in Israel, face a struggle ahead with a new mentality, based on having learned the hard lessons of the past.

Seth J. Frantzman, Ph.D., is the author of “Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future.” He has more than 15 years of experience covering conflict and security issues in the Middle East, as a correspondent and analystand is an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). 


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