Israel's New Ambiguity: Where Are Its Drones Headed?

Israel operates more than 100 unmanned aerial vehicles and exports drones around the world, including a deal to lease several such aircraft to Germany. But it consistently refuses to divulge details about missions carried out by its UAVs.

One of the images, showing an Israeli drone, provided by The Intercept.
Screenshot from The Intercept

The Defense Ministry has posted an English-language clip on its official YouTube page showing the Hermes 450 drone taking off and cruising in the air, as well as photos of bombardments.

The film details the distance of the Elbit-made medium size UAV, the number of hours it can fly and its range. 

One detail is missing – according to foreign media, the Hermes 450 can carry missiles and launch them from the air.

A hint of this can be found in the Defense Minister’s site, boasting that Israel is a superpower in the drone industry. 

“In recent years the UAV industry has grown rapidly, following the increased number of missions and their complex character – reconnaissance, surveillance, assisting infantry forces, attack, defense, etc.,” the site says. 

It also says that drones “are capable of staying a long time in the air, carrying hundreds of kilograms and have an extended range.”

The American administration, which frequently uses UAVs to attack targets throughout the world, has been blasted for using them as means of extrajudicial execution. Over time President Barack Obama has reduced the use of drones and instructed to issue regulations for their use.

In July the White House said that since Obama took office in 2009 the United States has carried out 473 sorties, most of them by drones, killing 2,372 - 2,581 “terrorist combatants.”

The strikes also killed 64-116 civilians, the statement says, but the figures don’t include the civilians killed in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, where, according to human rights organizations, the number is much higher, reaching into the several hundreds.

Israel consistently refuses to give details of the missions carried out by the drones it manufactures and operates. This week the IDF refused a request of human rights activists to expose its regulations for operating drones in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

An Hermes 450 drone produced by Elbit.
Dave Kolpack, AP

When the Israeli Air Force strikes in Gaza, the military spokesman reports that the strike was carried out by an “aircraft” without elaborating.
Israel has more than 100 drones, which are estimated to take up about 70 percent of the air force’s flying time.

Reports of Israeli drone attacks started a decade ago. In 2006 Aviation Week reported that in the Second Lebanon War Israel used Hermes 450 drones for attacks.

The British army developed the Watchkeeper drone in 2014, on the basis of the Israeli drone. That year the Israeli Air Force site said “although this isn’t an attack drone, the British artillery unit can arm it in the future.” 

Elbit’s partner in the Watchkeeper project, Thales, had already presented the remotely piloted air vehicle carrying two missiles under its wings at the London arms fair (called the Defense and Security Equipment International).

The Intercept news site reported that the American and British intelligence services followed the Israeli drones’ activity and documented them armed with missiles.

Over the years more evidence of the drones accumulated. Wikileaks reported in 2011 that Israel uses drones to attack terror activists in Gaza and the Economist reported that senior Hamas official Ahmad Jabari, who was assassinated at the start of the 2012 Israel-Gaza war, was attacked by a Hermes 450 drone.

An unmanned Heron drone flies over Ein Shemer Airfield in 2012.
Alon Ron

Palestinian investigator Dr. Atef Abu Seif, whose findings were published in Haaretz in 2014, found that in the 2012 and 2014 Israel-Gaza wars drones carried out more than 100 sorties, killing more than 120 civilians, including some 30 children. Another report attributed the bombing of arms smuggling convoys in Sudan to an Israeli drone.

Israeli companies, mainly Israel Aerospace Industries and Elbit, sold drones in recent years to a number of countries. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, an Israeli Harop drone – something between a UAV and a missile - was seen carrying out an attack.

An Azerbaijani Israeli-made suicide drone allegedly on a mission in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

In official arms exhibitions overseas customers are offered another model of this drone – Harpy - which was reportedly purchased by India.

Last year when it was learned that India approved buying Israeli Heron TP UAVs, they were reported to be armed.

This was one of the reasons that Germany chose this model, dubbed Eitan in Israel, as part of a giant deal with Israel.

At the beginning of the year the German ministry of defense said it would lease three to five Heron TP drones, as part of an estimated 580 million euro deal. German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said the drone could be armed and said it was “important for the soldiers’ defense.”

The agreement between Israel and Germany is unusual, as the leased drones will be dispatched in Israel, according to German media reports. 

A defense source said the German drone operators practiced on a simulator in an Air Force base.

Meanwhile, the German army has encountered a legal obstacle in operating the drones. The Aerospace Industry’s main competitor, General Atomics, which manufactures Predator B, has sued the German defense ministry for preferring the Israeli drone.

According to Israeli officials the deal is proceeding as normal.

Recently, at the Air Force’s request, the drones are now referred to as remotely piloted aerial vehicles, rather than “unmanned,” to stress the human involvement in making and carrying out decisions.

“Ultimately someone has to do it,” says an officer. “It was important to us, both for the motivation and the responsibility, to make it clear that it’s no different from someone sitting in a cockpit. The question is who decides what to do.

"This person is the drone’s operator, who was trained for it ethically and professionally and understands the significance of what he does. It makes him think twice about it,” the officer said.