An IAF site reporter spent a day in a UAV Operator’s Mission Station in order to get an up-close look at what a daily routine looks like in the unique division. The division’s operators tell us about the devotion to the mission, the importance of success and the meaning of failure
Eilon Tohar | Translation: Ohad Zeltzer Zubida
The “Heron 1” (Shoval) silently glides, as if it were invisible. On the screens, thousands of routes, indicated by their codenames. When approaching the ground suddenly, groves, alleys, streets, intersections and the sea of cars moving in them around the busy city become revealed to the eye. No corner or person is hidden from the eye of the UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) Operator and still, they must show maximal alertness.
Far from there, in a mission station positioned in Palmahim Airbase, I join a routine training exercise in a UAV squadron which belongs to the division which has its eye on every arena and this time is simulating a search for suspects in the skies of the Gaza Strip. The station is lit by the advanced screens, the synoptic maps (which show levels of precipitation), the radiant keys on the control panel and the switches which seem to the eyes of those who haven’t underwent the six month course like a foreign language. “The routine can wear you out”, admits Lt. Amit, one of the operators in the “First UAV” Squadron which took part in the exercise. “Nonetheless, you have to stay focused at all times”.
Lt. Amit did not lie. From the moment the UAV operators put the headphones on their heads, they forgot that they’re in an air conditioned station and sunk into the battle image with full concentration. In certain moments during the exercise, the intensity was felt just like in a cockpit.
“A camera is also a weapon”
The UAVs can scan the field, report any threat, direct the combat helicopters and jets towards their targets and prevent hurting uninvolved civilians. When carrying out routine security measures, they execute intelligence gathering operations in order to add another piece to the puzzle which the IAF’s Intelligence Directorate will later work to decipher.
“We are the IAF’s eyes in every mission”, says Capt. Idan, one of the operators, during the exercise I accompanied. “As an operator, your job is to make sure the mission is executed as well as it could be. A camera is also a weapon. You must be knowledgeable and know the station like the palm of your hand, because in practice, you affect people’s lives and the decisions you make, might determine the lives of innocents”.
The operators located a family car, but quite compact – a Toyota if I’m not mistaken – which did not stand out in the traffic. Small details directed the operators which followed it, ready and calculated, in order to be sure that it was the right car, even when it was almost swallowed by the other vehicles. I say to myself, that even if an F-15 would enter the mission station, it wouldn’t be able to distract the operators, which were completely focused on following the target. Nothing else was as important in that moment.
In the air, all the time
Later they explained the significance of being mission commander. He is responsible for the flying, the navigation, communications with outside factors and making decisions in real time, while the other operators are responsible for operating the UAV’s systems.
“Commanding is the most significant mission you can receive as a UAV Operator”, emphasizes Lt. Amit, which arrived at the squadron six months ago and has just been qualified to become a commander. “You become a commander in the operational aspect and in the safety aspect, when you must make sure that the vehicle doesn’t crash into another with the coordination of the ATC Division. Deciphering the coordinates, dealing with interruptions and execution of the mission are on the line”.
A beeping sound drew our attention to another vehicle contacting us and the commander immediately answered in order to take care of the problem. Even when in training exercises, the operators must be ready to interrupt their exercise and join a real time mission and for surprise events at any moment. “Gaza has unique characteristics, like uninvolved population and great density”, explains Capt. Idan. “It isn’t for no reason that more people are being trained, the power build up is being expanded and more and more training exercises are being executed in order to deal with this arena. We’re in the air, every day”.