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Israel, midwife at the birth of the modern military drone

Elbit Systems Hermes 900 w Drone

Photo :Matthieu Sontag, Licence CC-BY-SA

Where it all started

While drone or UAV technology did not originate in Israel, the country has been very much at the forefront of technological development and the military application of drones since the early 1970s. The concept of using drones began when the significance of observing and later attacking an enemy from the air dawned on Chinese military strategists during the Han Dynasty, circa 425 BCE .

Early Chinese "drones"

Drones, or to be precise, their ancient cousins, have been used for military purposes for about 2,600 years. This dates back to the invention of kites in China to meet the needs of military strategists in very much the same way that military demands during the First World War heralded a plethora of technological advances. These early Chinese kites were used for sending coded messages to commanders during battle situations, very often to indicate the locality and strength of enemy emplacents. Much later, during the Song Dynasty, circa 900 CE, the invention of gunpowder resulted in a new use for kites as weapon carrying drones. Archaic incendiary devices with slow burning fuses were fitted to kites, which were used to deliver the ancient “bombs” to the enemy. While the kite bombs were a very frightening psychological weapon, they had little practical effect and generally never did much real damage. Kites in those times were certainly not child’s play.

Early Chinese Military Kites

From Kites to Lanterns

The Chinese did not limit themselves to kites, but also developed hot air paper lanterns with suspended containers in which a fire was lit to generate hot air, causing the light paper structure to ascend. The lanterns were used by the military in the same way as the kites, with the advantage that they weren't dependent on wind to rise upwards. These lanterns were very similar in design to the modern Chinese ones used during various celebratory events.

Chinese paper lantern

The first airborne bombing raid

Fast forward from Song Dynasty China to the Austrian - Venetian war of 1849 and we find the first bombing raid by an unmanned aerial vehicle. Austria launched several balloons towards Venice from the paddle steamer Vulcan, making the ship a forerunner to the modern aircraft carrier. Each balloon carried a 30 kg bomb attached with a time delay explosive fuse to break the link to the balloon, allowing the bomb to fall to the ground. The spectacular attack was ineffective from a military perspective, but the psychological effect on the Venetian people resulted in a surrender to the Austrians two days later.

Israel enters the UAV era

Israel’s initial foray into the use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) was to meet a developing military crisis. During the War of Attrition (1967 - 1970), which Egypt waged against Israel, Russian manufactured surface to air SA - 2 and SA - 3 high-altitude air defence systems were installed in Egypt. The objective was to discourage intelligence gathering flights by the Israeli Air Force. The idea of using UAVs or drones to do air reconnaissance missions rather than risking the lives of pilots came to the fore to counter the threat of the Egyptian surface to air missiles. The first UAV aerial photography unit was opened at Palmachim Air Base on 1 August 1971, using Firebee UAVs that had been imported from the United States. Operators were trained and the first successful reconnaissance mission to an area protected by surface to air missiles was carried out a short time after the unit had been established. Following the positive result of the initial mission and the recent shooting down of an IAF reconnaissance aircraft by Egypt, the UAV unit was deployed to Refidim Airbase in northern Sinai, about 120 kilometres east of the Suez canal. While the Firebees attracted the same response from the anti-aircraft systems as the manned flights, the much smaller size of the drones made it almost impossible for the surface to air missiles to hit their target.

U.S. manufactured Firebee UAV in use 1948 - 1975

Firebee drones were used to accurately locate anti-aircraft batteries enabling combat aircraft to carry out pinpoint attacks. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Firebees flew 19 reconnaissance missions on the Egyptian front, during the course of which 10 of them were shot down by the enemy. The intelligence from these missions proved invaluable to Israel in destroying Egyptian many of the anti aircraft installations.

Before the start of the Yom Kippur War, Israeli military leadership had realised that flying combat or intelligence gathering missions over the Suez canal was becoming so costly in lives and aircraft lost as to no longer be practical. The answer to this problem lay in using UAVs as decoys to attract the attention of the anti-aircraft missile batteries, leaving the manned aircraft free to go about their business. The Chukar, a small and relatively low technology UAV manufactured in the U.S. was found to answer the needs of the IAF. Twenty seven of these drones were imported, renamed the Telem, and used to equip another special unit that was established and trained for flying the Telem drones. The secondary purpose of their deployment was to attract anti-aircraft fire enabling IAF combat aircraft to pinpoint and destroy the enemy surface to air missile systems.

Chukar UAV renamed the Telem by the IAF

Click on this link to watch a video of the Telem history

According to the Israel Air Force web site, 23 Chukars were launched against Egypt in October 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. 18 of them survived the war, while 5 were downed by enemy fire. More importantly, each flight consisting of between 2 and 4 Chukars attracted an average 20 to 25 Egyptian surface to air missiles, satisfying a major reason for their deployment. Some reports suggest that the decoy attacks by the drones depleted the Egyptian stock of missiles to such a degree that Israeli combat aircraft were able to fly their missions without fear of missiles from the SA - 2 and 3 missile batteries, which the Israeli pilots were then able to destroy. The planned objective of using the drones had been achieved.

Chukars defend the Golan Heights

Chukar squadrons were then deployed to the Golan Heights front where Israeli armoured units were heavily outnumbered and under immense pressure from sustained attacks by Syrian tanks and aircraft. The first Chukar foray completely deceived Syrian radar emplacement and anti aircraft system operators into mistakenly believing that they were seeing a mass attack by Israeli combat aircraft. Panicked, the Syrians lost no time in firing their precious stock of missiles at the Chukars, wasting them on small targets that were almost impossible to hit. The result was Israeli combats pilots on this front had virtual freedom of the skies and were able to fly combat missions in relative safety from anti aircraft missiles. The Yom Kippur War proved the benefits of the effective use of drones in warfare and they have subsequently become an integral part of Israel's arsenal and been consistently used to great effect.

Drones used as offensive weapons and intelligence gatherers saved the lives of countless members of the Israel Defence Forces during the two wars in Lebanon as well as the various Gaza operations. They have also proved extremely effective in locating, tracking and eliminating moving targets in Israel’s constant war against terrorism, saving many lives in the process

Camera technology keeps pace

Photographic and camera technology has kept pace with UAV and drone developments since 1858, when Gaspard Félix Tournachon attached a camera to a balloon which was anchored near Paris. The very first photograph taken was unfortunately lost, but the second aerial photograph, which was taken by James Wallace Black in 1860 using a camera attached to a tethered hot air balloon above Boston, has survived and is the oldest aerial photograph. By combining camera and drone technology Israel has been able to extract huge benefits in terms of intelligence gathering and real time information for strategic purposes. The ultimate application of aerial photography has allowed us to view images taken from unmanned space vehicles on visits on distant planets. Here too, Israel has become a leader in imaging technology, but that is a story for another day.

For the benefit of readers who are interested in more detail regarding drones and their uses by the Israel Air Force, I've added links to 2 very interesting websites

Read here about recent developments in drone weapons technology from Israel.

The use of drones by the Israeli Air Force.

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