January 27, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

New tools of war: How the IDF uses drones to fight Hamas in Gaza

IDF 14th Armored Reserve Brigade members discuss how they used drones and new technology to outfight Hamas in Gaza.
January 27, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

New tools of war: How the IDF uses drones to fight Hamas in Gaza

IDF 14th Armored Reserve Brigade members discuss how they used drones and new technology to outfight Hamas in Gaza.

An officer in Israel’s 14th Armored Reserve Brigade recalls October 7. As for many Israelis, that day has become a defining line between the past and the present. 

The officer, whose full name cannot be used for security reasons, is a major in his brigade. He was with his wife and child when the war began. His mother was visiting.

“We were going to have a nice weekend together, the first with my mom since my first child was born in August,” he recounts to the Magazine. He was called up that day to go to war, as Israel called up more than 300,000 reservists in the first week of the war. He spent three months away from his family, like many reservists. Because his child was so young when he was called up, he notes that he missed the majority of his young son’s first months, as he was away more than he was at home.

The outbreak of war was shocking for the officer. He says that he was peace-oriented before the war. “I didn’t think any war was coming. I wanted more peace and love around my life. Then the October 7 massacre happened, and nothing will be the same I guess after that morning.”

Another officer in the unit also discusses his role since the war began. His name also can’t be used for security reasons. We’ll call him Major A. Not to be confused with Major I, the man with the newborn. Major A came from an air force background. His background was in drone warfare, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). He wasn’t in the reserves for the unit prior to the war.

“After about a week, I joined the unit for armed forces and air force cooperation, and I ended up in the headquarters of one of the brigades.” In this case, it was the 14th Reserve Brigade. “I joined their headquarters which operates and helps the forces on the ground, all the things they need to help them to succeed in their missions in Gaza by doing what they need.”

Ground and air cooperation

Modern warfare includes the use of new technology alongside old methods of war. That means that units like the 14th or other reserve units still have tanks and men with rifles that need to go forward into the streets of Gaza. Hamas honeycombed Gaza with terrorist infrastructure, such as tunnels and rocket launch sites. To fight Hamas, the IDF uses the latest technology. What that means is using weapons and tools like drones to help to identify threats.

Communication between the drone operators and the soldiers on the ground is important. Soldiers in a tank unit might not be used to dealing with the air force or know how drones operate. For this reason, having a liaison, such as Major A, is important.

Major A helped to aid this essential cooperation between the ground forces and air units. This involved working with UAVs in various ways, such as surveillance and also targeting threats on the ground. “What we are doing is that I bring my knowledge in UAV operations and the knowledge of how they work and how they can help and where they can help, things that the ground forces need to succeed in their missions.”

Having Major A in brigade headquarters helped bring his skills and knowledge from the air force to aid the forces of the 14th as they fought in Gaza. This enabled the unit to “maximize” operations. This meant that the ground forces could utilize UAVs more than in the past, “so they know the UAV abilities better and use them more correctly and accurately without hurting the Israeli forces, and also to minimize the casualties to civilians on the other side with more precise targeting.” 

Drones up above can help see the enemy and can help to differentiate between civilians and terrorists. A lot of the technology Israel has pushed to the front in this war is all about differentiating between the terrorists, who dress as civilians, and the actual civilians. Estimates of the total number of terrorists killed in Gaza come in a range, but the IDF generally believes it has eliminated 9,000 terrorists. The Hamas-controlled Health Ministry in Gaza said on January 21 that 25,000 people had been killed in Gaza.

In practice

It will take time after the war to know how well the new tools and technology were used at the front to help forces differentiate between civilians and terrorists. Another aspect of using more drones and having more synergy between the air force and ground forces is that threats are also eliminated before IDF forces have to come in contact with them. This reduces a lot of the fighting that might have occurred in past wars, and that also reduces the number of casualties among the IDF and among civilians in Gaza.

In one incident with the 14th Brigade in Gaza, the unit was operating next to a command post of Hamas that had been identified. “Infantry were located in one point of the post, and on the other side we could see a group of five Hamas terrorists with an RPG and guns coming out of one of the tunnels,” Major A recalls. “It was in a point where the ground forces couldn’t see them and we could see them from the air, and we let the UAV take care of them without the ground forces risking themselves.”

In general, drones are very helpful in the kind of urban warfare setting and built-up environment that the IDF has faced in Gaza. The coordination between the air force UAV operators and the ground forces has also improved, thanks to the world of officers such as Major A. He describes the streamlined communications and operations as more professional and accurate. 

There is also a learning curve. The units have learned a lot from this conflict and over the last decade how to improve their synergy on the battlefield. Ninety days of war, as the soldiers of this unit saw, have given them a lot of experience in different types of terrain and coordinating with other elements of the IDF.

The operations in Gaza were also difficult. Not all the civilians in northern Gaza evacuated, despite IDF pleas for them to do so since early October. When the ground offensive began, there were still some civilians in northern Gaza, perhaps as many as 200,000 out of what was once around 1.4 million. 

According to reports from the IDF, the 14th Brigade, “in cooperation with soldiers of the Armored and Combat Engineering Corps, secured Hamas’s Falestin outpost in the northern Gaza Strip. The soldiers directed aircraft and artillery strikes until the outpost was secured” in mid-November. On December 22, the unit was operating in Shati, a dense urban area near the beach in Gaza. The area was once known as the “beach camp” because it was a refugee camp near the beach. It has been a hotbed of Hamas support for decades.

“The IDF says it has located and demolished a hideout apartment belonging to Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar in northern Gaza, along with a large tunnel system under it. The apartment, located on the outskirts of Gaza City, was found by the 14th Reserve Armored Brigade and later investigated by the elite Yahalom combat engineering unit, which found a tunnel shaft,” the IDF said in late December, describing the unit’s operations.

Major I speaks

The second officer we spoke to, Major I, describes his work as a strike officer in the brigade. He is the man who left his newborn to go to war. Unlike the other officer, his background is in artillery. He had been part of Battalion 55 of the 215th Artillery Unit.

“For the past five or six years, I was doing my job as a strike officer in the headquarters of the 14th Brigade Reserve.” A strike officer’s job is to help bring down strikes, from various types of weapons that the IDF has, on the enemy. The information may come from the battalions in the field or from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and other sources.

When he arrived at the brigade, they were still preparing for the war in Gaza as the air campaign against Hamas ramped up in October. They prepared their computers and other technology and set up tents to be ready for the war. They were around 20 kilometers away from the fighting at the headquarters.

“My job is surrounding the forces by putting one leg forward,” the officer says. “Think of the battalion as an onion; my job is the outer layers that are protecting them from any damage. My highest mission is to make sure no soldiers die on my shift, by supporting with naval, air force, and artillery fire.” 

Hamas operates in hundreds of miles of tunnels in Gaza built under civilian areas. That means that Hamas members can pop out of a tunnel and attack, and then flee back underground. In general, this means they are only above ground for a few minutes or so, and strike officers like the major have to be able to call in fire quickly to eliminate the terrorists. 

“You have to be ready at all times, and response times have to be as quick as possible. Because they can come out of a hole 100 meters or one kilometer from the soldiers. This is what they have used their money and support from all around the world in recent years [to do].”

The training the major had done paid off. Much of what they saw in Gaza worked well with the training they had done. However, the environment in Gaza was challenging. In Shati, for instance, the IDF had to delineate a road where they were operating and warn civilians not to approach IDF forces. The unit would conduct daily raids and try to keep the enemy off balance through constant movement.

Major I describes the battles in Shati and also taking the “Palestine” base near Erez, which was one of the first operations the 14th Brigade did in Gaza. Hamas had attacked the Erez Crossing on Oct. 7, ransacking the area and killing Israelis, destroying a border crossing that had helped Palestinians enter Israel for years.

The fighting in Gaza was made difficult because of the way Hamas operates from tunnels and also its attempt to attack Israeli tanks if the tanks are not supported by infantry. The officer in the 14th emphasizes this issue, noting that Hamas had attempted to detonate explosives on or near tanks. At other times, Hamas uses RPGs or snipers. Working together is essential for this kind of war, where a tank unit or infantry unit can call in airstrikes or call in naval gunfire. For instance, because Shati is near the beach, the unit could coordinate often with the navy.

Israel has made strides fighting Hamas over the last decades. 

“You try to get ahead of them and scout ahead and always updating with what the Shin Bet has to offer in terms of intel on the forces in the landscape, be ready and responsive, and be communicative to the battalions,” says the major. “I let them know that they can call me at any moment and let me know what they need taken care of.”

The next stage

The reservists are now out of Gaza. They came home in early January. Now they are preparing mentally for the next stage. 

They have been home for weeks, but they know that a new escalation may require them to put on the uniform again and go back to the Gaza front or another front. 

“It was hard for my partner taking care of the child for the last two and a half months. My responsibility resides here,  and I am making sure I am in the best mental and physical shape for the next round,” says Major I. “All I need resides in myself. Maybe a little psychological help. I was not expecting this intense war. 

“The hour called us to come and fight for Israel, humanity, and the rest of the modern world.”

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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