All it takes to shake up Israel is one missing soldier. The EITAN unit (Unit for Detecting Missing Soldiers) supervises all recovery attempts of missing soldiers in Israel, taking full advantage of the technological advancements of the UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). A new course, held twice a year, trains UAV operators to operate in these delicate situations.
Dozens of maps, work plans and research papers are scattered on Major (res.) Yoav’s desk, a citizen employed by the IDF (Zahal)’s EITAN Unit (Unit for Detecting Missing Soldiers). A small picture of Guy Hever, an IDF (Zahal) soldier missing since 1997, is pinned to the cork board on the wall. It has always been the goal of terrorist organizations to take Israeli soldiers, dead or alive. History shows that the State of Israel has gone to great lengths to retrieve its soldiers, even solely for burial purposes.
“We are supposed to respond as fast as possible once a soldier is determined to be missing. Be it in an abduction or on the battlefield, we must find and bring the soldier back,” Maj. (res.) Yoav said. “Locating the soldier right away prevents a family, national, and international crisis down the road.”
In a new course, the Israel Air Force’s EITAN Unit taught UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) operators how to serve as the IDF (Zahal)’s eyes in the skies over enemy territory in order to thwart the next attempt of abduction.
It all began with two research papers written by Maj. (res.) Yoav, together with Maj. (res.) Chen, a UAV operator and specialist in tracing missing persons. Over the years, Maj. (res.) Yoav and Maj. (res.) Chen wrote papers involving the UAV and its role in tracing kidnappings.
“The message these papers convey is simple: let’s use existing technology in the best way possible, to trace and locate missing persons,” Maj. (res.) Yoav explained. “EITAN’s task is clear: to give 12-digit location coordinates and point to the place where a missing person is, dead or alive. At the very least, it enables us to explore enemy territory and narrow the missing person’s search. It allows us to traverse through places we would not be able to without the UAV.”
Maj. (res.) Yoav describes a particular finding that came out of the two papers: “When you bury someone, a mound is created. Later, that mound turns into a very particular shape, which can be spotted. In addition, we learned that when someone digs a grave, the soil is turned over and seeds are mixed in. The mound holds a greater amount of moisture. The moisture and the mixed seeds result in a unique effect that features vegetation different from the surrounding natural habitat. These findings helped us locate Dana Bennett [an Israeli teen murdered in 2003].”
Another apparent benefit of the UAV is its sophisticated cameras. “The UAV has a thermal camera on board that provide superior resolution and quality,” Maj. (res.) Chen explained. “Thermal techniques allow for further analysis of the terrain. We can even mark suspicious areas for further investigation. Our focus here is on getting to the soldier before the terrorists do.”
A training course for locating missing persons
Upon Maj. (res.) Chen’s release from the military, he made sure to pass on his existing knowledge to other operators in the squadron. “This is not a type of mission that we do on a daily basis, and is very different than the usual ‘locate the rocket launcher’ assignments,” Maj. (res.) Meir said. “Fortunately, this does not happen very often, but the idea to formulate a whole training course came up upon realizing that there is a significant knowledge gap in this area.”
And so the two-and-a-half day course was built. At the end of the course, an aerial workshop was conducted where an area in Israel was selected to simulate a battlefield as UAV operators were asked to identify simulated burial sites.
“There are several anticipated missing person’s scenarios: hikers lost in the desert, a pilot ejects from a plane, a kidnapping by terrorists, or casualties on the battlefield,” Maj. (res.) Oz describes. “One of the goals of this course is to establish a protocol which can be followed through in any of these scenarios.”
From a different angle
The operators report that beyond the knowledge of how to handle missing-persons emergencies, the special course raises their level of professionalism, as they acquire new skills in analyzing aerial images. “We are teaching the operators how to retrieve more information from the images they see,” Maj. (res.) Chen explained. The course is planned to take place twice a year. While it is being taken very seriously, the hope for everyone remains that what is taught in the course will not need to be applied in real-life emergency scenarios.