The tactical center of the Israel Air Force’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft division at the Palmachim air base is festooned with flags. Flying alongside the Star of David are the flags of the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Inside the building are dozens of air crew from the six countries, receiving their orders for the sorties to be flown in an hour. On their different colored flight suits are stylized Velcro patches with white arrows converging over a dark silhouette of Israel’s coastline.
Welcome to the two-week Operation Blue Guardian. Personnel from six air forces have assembled to learn from each other how to operate unmanned aerial vehicles. And also to let the world know they’ve all come to Israel to do this. The Israel Defense Forces spokesperson’s unit is an integral part of it all: this isn’t just a military exercise, it’s a media spectacle.
This is the first international exercise of its kind featuring members of different air forces using another country’s systems, flying together in dual-drone formations. One is operated by a foreign team, the second by Israeli operators, and after each sortie the teams sit together in joint briefings.
While the Hermes 450 (“Zik”) drones being used are unique to the IAF, the point of the exercise isn’t to learn how to fly them – as they are directed automatically anyway by a click of a computer mouse – but to learn “how to fly missions.” What’s important in these missions isn’t how to get the drone over the designated area, but how to use its advance sensors to locate and acquire targets and other usable intelligence.
In some of the sorties, the RPA teams coordinate with manned fighter jets and attack helicopters, which carry out simulated strikes based on the coordinates they receive during the mission. The foreign personnel are operating according to an Israeli doctrine that uses several drones working in tandem to sweep the area, identify targets and ensure there are no civilians in the kill zone.
In the evenings, they gather to share stories and battle experience of the various Middle East theaters in which their different countries have operated – Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Gaza and elsewhere.
There is of course another aspect to drone warfare. Despite repeated reports in the foreign media on the use Israel has made of armed drones in targeted killings, the simulated airstrikes in the exercise are carried out by manned aircraft, F-16 fighters and Apache helicopters.
The Hermes 450 drones taking off from Palmachim during the exercise have no pylons. In Blue Guardian, they are using their sensors.
When asked, none of the officers involved in the exercise could come up with a plausible scenario in which such cooperation between RPA teams would take place in actual operations. But there still is a concrete purpose to this exercise beyond gaining professional expertise: it’s another form of diplomacy. By holding such an event openly in the media glare, Israel is demonstrating how it has become an accepted and respected partner of NATO and its main members.
Not that long ago, some of the countries taking part in Blue Guardian – especially Britain and France – would have balked at publicizing this level of military cooperation with Israel. They have extensive diplomatic and commercial interests in the Arab world and were concerned about jeopardizing them.
One of the changes that the Abraham Accords has wrought in the region is that no one thinks anymore that close ties with Israel can harm similar relations with the Arab world, certainly when it comes to the Gulf states. Yet still, bringing together teams from five Western nations on such an exercise, especially when the memory of the carnage of the Gaza conflict in May is still so fresh, is a diplomatic triumph.
This week, as major newspapers around the world, including Haaretz, carried the findings of the Pegasus Project, we learned of another form of Israeli diplomacy. The list of countries that had used the NSO Group’s cyberhacking tools to keep tabs on journalists, human rights activists and political rivals tallied perfectly with the list of autocrats and populists courted over the past decade by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
We now have a better idea of the kind of sweeteners Netanyahu threw in to build his impressive array of international alliances and what the bland statements on “agreement to cooperate in the field of cybersecurity” actually means. It was a fascinating insight on how Israel has been conducting itself in a murky world.
At the end of a week in which the announcement by Ben & Jerry’s that it would be ending the agreement with its Israeli licensee to manufacture its ice cream in Israel induced mass hysteria among Israeli politicians, the joint exercise, along with the NSO revelations, injects some perspective on the multiple levels of Israel’s standing in the world.
On what side does the power reside? With activists in Vermont who successfully pressured the progressive Jewish founders of the ice cream company? With journalists and researchers who revealed the ways an advanced surveillance system has been used by authoritarian regimes? Or is it with the governments that use Pegasus to suppress dissent, the tech companies that develop those capabilities and the militaries constantly refining their remotely controlled weapons systems and doctrines for taking out targets?
Israel is losing, if it hasn’t already lost, the battle for one side of that power balance. If Ben & Jerry’s remains available in Israeli stores after the end of 2022, it will only be because the corporate giant Unilever somehow forces the company it owns to allow that to happen. But other companies that want to project a different type of image could pull out of Israel. And Israel’s high-tech scene, for years one of the country’s main selling points, is tainted by the abusive intrusion of the NSO Group and like-minded companies. On the other hand, it’s not like Big Tech in other places is enjoying a particularly positive image right now.
Ironically, in some quarters – the ones where the potential customers lurk – NSO’s image will have been enhanced as the preferred surveillance provider to those prepared to pay the most. Just as the negative headlines on the Gaza operation haven’t deterred Western militaries from sending their personnel to a joint exercise with the IAF. On the contrary.
It’s difficult, but Israel wants to have both: the admiration of the professional hard men, the weapons and cybersecurity deals, the military cooperation. And it wants to have the free, carefree and progressive image and lifestyle that comes with tubs of Ben & Jerry’s in every supermarket freezer.