That finally changed July 20 of last year, thanks in part to pressure from local industry who felt the inability to market their wares was costing them market share.
As a result, more information is coming to light about the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) units that are using armed drones. One such group is Squadron 161, known as “The Black Snake.” The unit operates the Elbit Systems Hermes-450 “Zik” drone, primarily in counter-terror missions over the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon.
Recently, Breaking Defense visited Squadron 161 at Palmachim Air Base in central Israel, the first time a media outlet was given access to the unit. As a condition for access, the name of the officer who talked with Breaking Defense has been anonymized.
Roughly 80 percent of the total number of the IAF flight hours are performed by UAVs, something Maj. M, deputy commander of the squadron, said shouldn’t be a surprise given how much the IDF has come to rely on unmanned systems.
“UAVs replace manned aircraft in more and more missions. The number goes up all the time,” she said. (One good example: the IAF has traditionally operated manned aircraft for maritime patrol missions, but is transferring the majority of that work to UAVs equipped with special payloads. However, that mission is performed by another unit using the IAI-made Heron 1.)
The type of operations Squadron 161 is running, which are often in dense, populated areas such as Gaza, require flexibility, Maj. M stressed. She noted that all missions are controlled from a two-man station in the base, with a mission commander and an operator seated side-by-side watching the data transmitted by the UAV.
“We receive missions from the high command, and it is allocated to platforms already over the designated area or to others that are in the air after a few minutes. We are on high alert and can launch a number of armed UAVs in minutes” she said.
There are two basic types of operations The Black Snake regularly runs. The first is persistent overwatch of an area identified as a hub of terrorist activity, keeping an eye out for targets that pop up and striking in such a situation, such as if a crew is heading out to prepare a rocket launch into Israel. The second is a pre-planned strike on a target that has been identified and detected by other sources.
“We are capable of the real-time sensor-to-shooter operations, and this is enabled by the accurate intelligence gathered by the UAVs payload combined with additional details that we receive from other sources” the major added. She would not detail what those sources are, but said broadly that “areas of interest” like Gaza and Lebanon are monitored by different types of sensors that can be classified as “staring” capabilities.
As the Hermes-450 is heavily operated over Gaza, the targets are in most cases not static — crews of Hamas preparing the launch of rockets into Israel and commanders riding motorcycles on their way to perform an attack against Israel. Given the density of Gaza, Squadron 161 requires almost real-time sensor-to-shooter sequences.
Maj. M added that in some missions the squadron’s UAVs are operated in conjunction with UAVs from other units. The IAF operates other types of armed UAVs, like the Elbit systems Hermes-900 and the Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) Heron-TP.
“Our squadron’s UAVs are flying over an area and collecting intelligence. When a target is detected and confirmed the mission commander approves the launch of the munitions,” she stressed. “There is a man in the loop all the time so that the mission can be aborted if there is a danger of hitting” innocents.
According to Elbit Systems, the Hermes-450 has a take-off weight of 550 kg and a payload capacity of 180 kg. The company claims a 17-hour endurance and altitudes of up to 18,000 feet. Israeli industry sources told Breaking Defense that in the coming years the IAF is set get an updated version of the Hermes-450, capable of carrying a heavier munitions load.
While the IAF refused to detail the different munitions used by its armed UAV squadrons, industry sources said that the variety of munitions that are designed for use on UAVs have increased to meet growing operational requirements.
Notably, the Hermes-450 is powered by a Wankel engine, an internal combustion engine that transforms pressure into rotating motion through a rotary design. The engine is very noisy, which means in the past targets have been able to hear the drone as it is approaching for a strike. As a result, the IAF played around with attaching mufflers to the engine to try and lower the noise level.
However, according to the deputy squadron commander, those mufflers affected the power generated by the UAV. Ultimately, the squadron decided they needed the UAV engine running at full capability and had to figure out how to work around the noise issue. Now, “This does not create an operational problem” she said without elaborating.
While touring the hangars where the Hermes-450 are being maintained, Maj. M. said that the design of the UAV results in very simple maintenance.
“This allows us to use big numbers of them when needed.”