German drone pilots train in Israel, with eye on Afghanistan
Worried by insurgent ambushes and civilian casualties on the ground in the Afghan war, Germany last year ordered a fleet of Israeli Heron spy drones.
EIN SHEMER AIR BASE - As World War Two raged in the years before Israel's founding, colonial British planes were scrambled here to fend off German forces.
Now the German air force is back, preparing for a far more remote fight with the modern equipment and expertise.
Worried by insurgent ambushes on its soldiers in Afghanistan and return fire that sometimes kills civilians or local allies, Germany last year ordered a small fleet of Israeli Heron spy drones designed to provide real-time images above a battlefield.
That has brought German jet pilots to coastal Ein Shemer air base for accelerated retraining on the unmanned propeller planes, already daubed with their flag and Iron Cross emblem.
"It's for the need of the ground troops, for our own protection, like convoy protection," said a Luftwaffe (air force) major, who formerly flew a Tornado fighter-bomber on Afghan reconnaissance missions and could not be named due to military secrecy.
"In Afghanistan it's really hard to compare the good guys from the bad guys. So you have to surveil them a long time."
Israel is a pioneer of combat drones, having deployed them in Lebanon in the Palestinian territories. Heron's manufacturer, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), says it is also used by Canadian, French, Australian and Spanish forces in Afghanistan.
Yet the fact Israeli know-how may now be saving German military lives offers up a unique historical irony lost on none.
The Defense Ministry in Berlin declined to allow the Luftwaffe trainees to be interviewed about such symbolism, but one of them described how they took time off to visit the central Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
Dressed in civilian clothes while in Israel, trainees on an earlier course stood at attention for annual commemorations in April of the six million Jews killed in the Nazi genocide.
"As a Jew, I felt very proud at this specific moment," said Tomer Koriat, deputy director of the IAI training program, who praised the Germans' mastery of the Heron within intensive courses lasting just three-and-a-half weeks.
"All of us have learned that today we are talking about another Germany than what we used to know ... A very, very good friend, if not the best friend of Israel today in the world."
Germany has become a key ally of Israel despite Berlin's criticism of its Palestinian policies.
While the United States regularly conducts drone air strikes in Afghanistan and on suspected insurgent bases in neighboring Pakistan, its allies are generally limited to using the planes for unarmed surveillance.
This is especially true for Germany. Although it has the third-biggest NATO Afghan contingent - some 4,300 personnel - it often appears uncomfortable with being involved in hostilities while World War Two is still a living memory.
"We're kept to 'recce' [reconnaissance] missions only. We're the good guys," joked another Luftwaffe major at Ein Shemer.
He recalled how, flying a Heron on a hunt for IAI staff posing as Taliban guerrillas in the surrounding cotton fields, the high-resolution camera spotted two boys in a fistfight.
"I couldn't do anything to stop it, so I just pulled away."
Each Heron costs about $10 million, depending on the sophistication of its equipment and the ground control booth. In a boon for spartan Afghan crews, the drone is designed to land and take off automatically.
Israelis are barred by Afghanistan, so IAI ceded maintenance services to German partner firm Rheinmetall Defense.
The former Tornado pilot spoke wistfully of his time in the clouds but said being grounded to fly Herons is just as vital.
"All of the time you have to be really certain what you do, because it has a real effect," he said. "It's not like a computer game - 'Game Over'."