Rise of the Drones Triggers Quiet Revolution in Israeli Air Force

As unmanned aerial vehicles take over the skies, more fighter squadrons are shut down. So what does that mean for aircraft pilots?

An Israeli drone at the Palmahim air base.
Nir Keidar

For the first time in the Israel Air Force’s history, none of its drone squadron commanders are former pilots. Instead, they all rose exclusively through the ranks of the drone program.

Given the increasing importance of drones, the IAF is now considering changing the operators’ training program and making it closer to the structure of the regular pilots’ training course. This means adding a period of college studies, in which the new “pilots” would earn a degree, and requiring them to sign up for a much longer period in the professional army: seven years (the same as pilots).

The air force sees a number of major advantages to the revision: The drone operators would be older and more mature, and they would also remain in the military for longer.

The IAF has racked up countless hours of flight time since receiving its first drones in July 1971. The first unmanned aerial vehicle was operated from the Sinai Peninsula, with its main role to conduct aerial photography of the Egyptian front.

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Since then, the air force has received a number of different models, including the first Israeli-made drone at the end of the 1970s – the Scout from Israel Aerospace Industries. According to foreign media reports, the latest addition, Elbit Systems’ Hermes 450, can be armed and has reportedly been used to carry out attacks on terrorists.

The operational theory behind the use of drones was a sort of antithesis to that of airplanes, justifying the “unmanned” or “pilotless” tag. Only recently has the IAF switched to calling them Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) or Remotely Piloted Aerial Vehicles (RPAV), to emphasize the involvement of the operators – those soldiers sitting in control centers on air force bases who control the vehicle, its systems and weapons.

All over the world, armies are rethinking the issue of who should be controlling RPAVs, which are basically airplanes and are almost as sophisticated as manned aircraft. Should they be trained pilots, or is that unnecessary? And how should the operators be trained?

Until now, the IAF had decided that RPAV operators should come from those who washed out of pilot training after a certain amount of time (usually at least a year). After passing a RPAV operator’s course of about six months, the new operators undergo further operational training for three months. Only then are they allowed to take control of a drone in real missions.

The number of new drone pilots is about the same as the number of old-style pilots who finish the traditional pilot training, and the IAF expects the number of drone operators to increase faster than the number of pilots.

These changes would have an effect not just on the RPAV units and operators, but would mean an internal change in how the air force is structured generally: The greater the number of well-trained drone operators it has, the more the IAF will be able to assign them to other posts outside the drone units. And this could even effect change in the overall ethos of the air force.

The process of change is a slow one, though, as witnessed by the fact that it’s only now that all the commanders in the RPAV squadrons are former drone operators themselves, rather than former pilots.

Meanwhile, the IDF is buying more and more drones. Over the last year, it has doubled the number of Heron TP units it has, and has begun receiving the new Hermes 900 – at the same time as it has been closing fighter squadrons.

“The RPAVs will kill us all in the end,” said a senior IAF officer, about the rise of the drones.