The “Zofit” has been flying in the IAF since the early 1990’s and has carried out intelligence gathering missions, all the while as UAVs take on more of the same missions. Are there any advantages to operation a manned plane in a field where UAVs are becoming the norm?
A lookout point on the northern birder of Israel detects an indication of enemy action. Within seconds, a “Zofit” (Beechcraft King-Air 200) is dispatched to the area to collect visual intelligence. On board, the two pilots, the flight engineers and the mission commander survey the events on the ground in coordination with the orders from the Command Center.
At the same time, in the same area, a “Shoval” (Heron 1) UAV takes out with the similar task of collecting aerial intelligence and creating a real time picture of the event. The main difference – the UAV’s operating team is sitting in a control center unit back in the squadron.
In this mission, and in many others, the various manned and unmanned surveillance squadrons are tasked with providing real time visual intelligence for different purposes, be it eyes on the sky or on the ground, in order to aid in the successful completion of the mission.
With the rise in the abilities and number of UAVs in the IAF in the past decade, more and more questions have been posed questioning the utility of manned surveillance squadrons. On the other hand, the number of operational flights that these manned squadrons fly has increased in the past few years, as has the level of equipment present on these planes, creating some of the most advanced manned surveillance planes in the world. Nonetheless, with the rise in use of UAVs, what does the future of intelligence gathering look like for the planes of the IAF.
Pros Vs. Cons
The “First” Squadron, which operated out of the “Sde-Dov” Airbase, flies the “Zofit” as well as the “Chofit” (Beechcraft Bonanza”), which are used to gather visual intelligence, both with still photography and more advanced electro-optic systems installed on the underside of the “Zofit”.
“The IAF and the IDF as a whole greatly benefits from the joint operation of manned and unmanned capabilities”, explained Lt. Col. Yoav, the commander of the “First” Squadron, qualifying the role of the squadron in an arena that is constantly shifting. “In the field of intelligence gathering, every different platform will have some form of advantage over another”.
The “Zofit” is a light plane and has the ability to be prepared for flight and take off in a very short period of time, providing the IAF a very distinct advantage. “What happens during an operation that needs a rapid response is that we will dispatch a ‘Zofit’ to the area, which will be able to get there very quickly, and then we will send a UAV, which will take a little longer to get there”.
Just like the “First” Squadron, the “First UAV” Squadron from the “Palmachim” Airbase is an operational visual intelligence squadron, as well as a training squadron. Unlike its manned counterpart, the flight crew in this squadron will remain in the control center in the airbase, no matter how far away the UAV is flying.
“The ‘Shoval’ UAV that we operate collects various types of information depending on what the information is needed for”, explains the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Tomer. “Our advantage is that we can spend an extended period of time on the air above the site and other area of interest”. More so, he believes that there is another advantage to UAVs: “There are missions where we don’t want to risk a pilot, so we can send a UAV without putting out people in harm’s way, while still obtaining the information that we need. This is an enormous advantage”.
The planes of the “First” squadron are outfitted with sensors which allow them to perform their surveillance from a great distance. “Flight engineers, who are trained as to how to best collect intelligence, know how to properly identify and analyze even the smallest details from a distance. The professional training they receive and the accumulated mission experience provide them with the necessary means to carry out their missions in situations they are not used to be operating in”.
The ruling element of every mission, be it manned or unmanned, is the concept of “a man in control”. “There is no machine or system that is able to replace the decision making process of a person”, says Lt. Col. Yoav. “I believe that the great advantage of manned intelligence flights is the level of independence that the flight crew has in real time. They can make decisions in seconds and carry them out without communication with the command center on the ground, which in many missions can be a major factor in achieving success”.
Creating a Shared Picture
Not every intelligence gathering mission can be carried out by every type of surveillance platform, and the decision to dispatch which platform for every operation is made by the General staff of the IAF. “We complete one another, and we know how to work together very well”, explains Lt. Col. Yoav.
This unique type of cooperation was brought to its fullest during the last simmer’s Operation “Protective Edge”. During the operation, the squadrons gathered intelligence all the while aiding IDF ground forces on the ground.
“Every plane we operate is relevant”
the IDF has been operating UAVs for over 40 years, and over the years, more and more tasks have started to be carried out by them, such as guiding ground forces, identifying targets, and there are plans to add mere tasks as UAV capabilities increase. At the same time, the manned “First” Squadron is flying more and more missions. So, is there a final answer to the question of what the intelligence gathering systems of the 21st century will look like? “Every plane we operate is relevant in its own right; it has what makes it special, its own abilities that it alone is the best at, whether it can fly the highest, the longest or some other ability. Every platform we operate justifies itself with its results”.