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“The agent is back,” the analyst said as he popped his head into Shabtai Brill’s office. “He has pictures.” The year was 1968. Brill, a major in the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate—known by its Hebrew acronym, Aman—set aside the report he was reading and got up.
Brill was used to seeing classified intelligence, but this day was special. The “agent” was one of the first Israeli spies to infiltrate Egypt successfully since the end of the Six-Day War a year earlier. He had photos that supposedly would help reveal Egyptian war plans, including possible preparations behind the ceasefire line.
A small crowd surrounded the agent in the department’s main nerve center. Colonel Avraham Arnan, Brill’s direct superior, was focusing on one photograph. “What do you think it is?” he asked the group of analysts. “It looks like a military bridge.”
It was. Egypt had moved the bridge to less than a mile from the Suez Canal, the strategic waterway that connected the world of commerce but separated Egypt from the territory it had lost to Israel during the Six-Day War. The bridge could be used by tanks and armored personnel carriers to cross the canal and invade Israel—far too close for comfort.
Before sending the agent to Egypt, Israel had pursued other avenues to gather intelligence on what Egypt was doing just over the canal. One officer designed a special platform to mount on tanks so that intelligence officers could stand on them and peer over the 30-foot-high sand barriers the Egyptians had erected on their side of the Suez. The platforms seemed effective until the day an Egyptian sniper took a shot at one of them. …
… In the meantime, while Israel’s Scouts were moving from one successful operation to the next, Israel’s greatest ally, the United States, was having difficulty getting its own drones off the ground. Billions of dollars were being poured into projects that closed down one after another. Nothing seemed to work.
A few years earlier, the Pentagon had funded the development of Aquila, a drone built by Lockheed Martin that required a few dozen people for takeoff but kept crashing. In 1987, after burning through over $1 billion, the Pentagon decided to shut the program down.
Boeing was also working on a drone—the Condor—that came with a 200-foot wingspan, as large as the reconnaissance aircraft it was being developed to replace. That program was also shut down after a $300 million investment. Only one Condor was built; today it hangs in a museum in California.
In December 1983, the U.S. finally decided to ask Israel for help. …
… Delivery of the Pioneers started in 1986. In 1991, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. The U.S. went to war to free the Gulf state. During one operation, a Pioneer drone flew over a group of Iraqi soldiers, who saw the aircraft and, not knowing what it was, took off their white undershirts and waved them in the air—the first time in history a military unit surrendered to a robot. …
… The Gaza Strip is ground zero for Israel’s drone revolution. There, on a daily basis, the lawnmower hum of drones can be heard in the narrow alleyways. Gazans have given the drones the nickname “Zanana,” Arabic for “buzz” or “nagging wife.” In Gaza, drones collect intelligence and help the IDF build its “target bank” in the event of a conflict.
Weighing a mere 13 pounds, the Skylark has an operational endurance of three hours at altitudes as high as 3,000 feet.
During Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, in November 2012, the IDF attacked nearly 1,000 underground rocket launchers and 200 tunnels that had been located and identified with intelligence gathered by drones. The first salvo of that operation was ordered in a drone-assisted attack. Ahmed Jabari, Hamas’s military commander, was driving in GazaCity when a missile struck his Kia sedan. Jabari, who had been at the top of Israel’s most-wanted list and had escaped four previous assassination attempts, was finally taken out by a drone.
Before Israel bombs Gaza in retaliation for rocket attacks, UAVs are there to survey the target; as helicopters and fighter jets move in to bomb a car carrying a Katyusha rocket cell, UAVs are there to ensure that children don’t move into the kill zone; when IDF ground troops surround a compound where Hamas terrorists are hiding, UAVs are there to provide real-time air support and guide the soldiers safely inside. And when needed, the drones can reportedly also attack.
At the smaller end of the IDF drone scale are drones not flown out of air-force bases but pulled from soldiers’ backpacks and literally thrown like a quarterback throws a football. One such drone, the Skylark, was delivered to IDF ground units in 2010. Weighing a mere 13 pounds, the Skylark has an operational endurance of three hours at altitudes as high as 3,000 feet. …
And yes, drones have cartoons too.