The Israeli Air Force (IAF) is having to adapt its aerial intercept tactics to contend with a marked rise in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) incursions over recent years, a senior service official told IHS Jane's on 2 April.
Speaking at Ramon Airbase in southern Israel, Lockheed Martin F-16I 'Sufa' pilot Major O (security considerations prevent the disclosure of his full name) said that the particular flight characteristics of these unmanned intruders has meant that intercepting them has been challenging, and that their numbers are increasing.
"The main issue about drones is that they are smaller and less detectable, and they fly slower also," he said. "The original concept of air intercepts was to engage aircraft flying fast and that have much larger cross-sections. We have adapted [our concept of operations to defeat them] by employing new tactics, devices, and missions. Today, we are highly qualified to do that mission using optical systems developed by Elbit and Rafael, such as the Litening pod, and with munitions such as the Python IV [air-to-air missile]. I can't elaborate any more than that though, [except to say that] the heat-seeking Python IV missile that we use is so advanced that there are no issues with engaging drones."
To demonstrate his points, Maj O showed IHS Jane's a video of a UAV intercept conducted by a pair of F-16Is during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 that was shot from the onboard forward-looking infrared imager of one of the aircraft. The action involved the intercept of a Hezbollah UAV near Haifa in the north of Israel.
"These [F-16Is] were equipped with the Dash IV [helmet-mounted display] and Python IV missile - this is the first missile to use thermal imaging and not just thermal, meaning it can track the heat signature of a [propeller-driven] drone. It has amazing manoeuvering capabilities also," he said.
"What happened in this case was that the pilot was unable to lock-on to the drone because its cross-section was too small. But he saw it, pointed his helmet at it, got the right [tone] from the missile, and launched the missile. The amazing thing was that because he launched so late the missile actually passed the drone before turning around at about 90 g s and coming back and hitting it head-on."
While Maj O revealed that UAV incursions are becoming more common, he declined to quantify this. "We are dealing with drones a lot more today, but I cannot say by how much. We had reconnaissance drones in the past from Hezbollah, Syria, and Egypt - that's no secret, but since 2006 we have been dealing with them a lot more. Most of them don't cross into Israeli territory though, because we conduct the intercept before they get there, and the ones that do cross have all been shot down. This is a trend that we see continuing."
As Major O noted, not only does the IAF see the trend continuing, but it also sees these UAVs becoming more potent and capable. As he explained: "We don't call them UAVs - they are guided weapon systems … a lot like cruise missiles even. Some of the [jet-powered ones] are even as fast as cruise missiles that are guided to the target by waypoints. We train against these types, but I can't say if we have actually intercepted any for real."
As well as its response to the increase in hostile UAV operations, Maj O said that the Second Lebanon War had resulted in other lessons being learned by the IAF, which it successfully put into practise during the subsequent Operation 'Cast Lead' and 'Pillar of Defense' in 2008 and 2012 respectively.
"[As shown in the Second Lebanon War], the main thing we see is the transfer between conventional warfare to guerrilla warfare. We had to adapt - it's very easy to drop 2,000 lb bombs on everything, but we won't do it because we're aware of collateral damage.
"To adapt we had to change three main concepts of operations. We had to develop our intelligence gathering capabilities to be able to pin-point the location of the target [and not the civilians who might be nearby], and this is now mainly done in the field by UAVs such as the [Elbit Systems] Hermes 450; we decreased the size of our munitions to make them less lethal, so we again only attack the target and don't injure anyone else; and we developed our tactics so that we are able to strike within about five minutes to catch the target next to the rocket launcher [he was operating]. We take these lessons forward," he said.