How Drones Shaped Warfare — and Israel
Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future by Seth Frantzman, (Bombardier Books, 2021)
Drones are transforming the way wars are fought. Pioneered in Israel in the 1980s and developed further in the United States in the 1990s, drones are now being used by Iran, China, Turkey, and other countries. They are increasingly a threat to US troops in Iraq, and have been deployed by Iran to threaten Israel. In the course of writing my new book, I spoke to drone operators, generals, and defense companies that are innovating in the field. From lasers to Israel’s Iron Dome, the drone wars are changing how we live.
What follows is an excerpt from my new book, which has been edited for length:
On June 6, 1967, Israeli soldier Yaki Hetz fought in one of Israel’s toughest battles. He was one of the men in Israel’s 55th Paratrooper brigade assaulting Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem against Jordanian forces during the battle for Jerusalem in the Six-Day War. The hill was festooned with trenches. From the top of the hill, one can see the Old City of Jerusalem in the distance, and the Ottoman-era walls of the city. “It all happened so quickly,” he later recalled. His platoon commander was hit by the Jordanians, and he helped take command of the assault at just after 2:30 a.m. Hetz won the Medal of Courage.
The battle for Ammunition Hill led Hetz to the conclusion that what was needed was something that infantry could use to see around a trench or over a hill while fighting in close combat. He made a sketch of a weapon that could hover, see, and then kill the enemy. He had moved on from the trauma of 1967 to study engineering and then work at Israel’s Authority for the Development of Armaments, later called Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. Hetz would work at Rafael for 40 years, and his dream of a loitering munition would eventually take shape in the early 2000s. Eventually called Firefly, it would be a three-kilogram missile with two rotors that could be put in a backpack, launch easily, and fly around a building to attack concealed or dug-in enemies.
Israel’s Ministry of Defense and Rafael developed Firefly, which was eventually procured by the IDF in May 2020. The system is designed with a small warhead, and can slam into an enemy at 70 kilometers per hour. It uses the same electro-optics that Israeli anti-tank missiles use, with infrared night and day sensors. Operated by a tablet, any soldier could learn to use it. Where platoons once had a mortar expert, radioman, medic, or squad automatic weapon carrier, now there would be the drone operator. While Hetz and Rafael were only imagining this weapon eventually rolling off the assembly line, others were getting in the game of building killer drones, much higher up in the sky, like the US Predator.
“My first exposure to drones was in 2002 or 2003,” recalls Col. Richard Kemp, a British army officer who rose to commander during the war in Afghanistan. The tough, imposing colonel recalls being in the cabinet office in London on the Joint Intel Committee when the US killed a terrorist in Yemen. “To me that was a revolutionary act of warfare.” [The terrorist’s] activities had been monitored, his communications tracked, and then he was gone. “I was aware of the development of drones. It was the first time I’d experienced their use. It brought home to me the immense power of these things. It was in the hands of the CIA, not the military, and after that, the US conducted more strikes in Pakistani tribal areas,” he recalls.
But [Kemp] did not use them himself in those years in Afghanistan. He worked closely with the Americans in Afghanistan, and observed the capabilities that the drones brought. As he discussed the role of drones in Afghanistan over drinks in Washington, Kemp looked back at the arc of recent conflicts. He was involved in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, trying to improve surveillance for British forces. He called it the development of an airship, often called an aerostat today, that could hover above areas to provide information on IRA terrorist activities. “We were keen to enhance capabilities.”
Like early drones, the concept was to give intelligence to headquarters, not lower-level troops. “That was a tiny fraction of what a drone can do, and that would change situation capability, and a drone or series of them would have revolutionized the conflict in Northern Ireland. We constructed observation posts that were manned, and each had 20-30 soldiers. And they were constantly attacked. They didn’t need troops in them; they weren’t there to react but to observe. Drones could have made a big difference.”
The radical changes necessary to incorporate drones and make troops comfortable with them was clear to Kemp. “In 1977, the technology we had when I joined the army, with the exception of night surveillance thermal imaging, it was no different than in World War I, the radios and all that was similar.” Now technology means coming to grips with the power of drones. “To my mind, the major difference is that it doesn’t give you a fundamental capability that wasn’t there before; we have had aircraft that can monitor and attack for many years. It’s not fundamentally different, but the options it gives you on the battlefield, it enables you to maintain surveillance and adjust it over a longer period of time. Except for satellites, we didn’t have that. For politicians it also gives the capability of applying military force in a way they haven’t had it before, without risk and deniability that was never available, and without infrastructure in the area. I would say that if anything, the revolution is at that level more than at the tactical level.”
In the end, the drone was the next logical development for the battlefield. It reduced the threat to soldiers in the field, sending in armed drones instead of special forces. Now drones would hunt the enemy down. Predator was mostly hunting down enemies in “permissive” or “non-contested” airspace, where shoot-down risk was low. This was a result of US global hegemony and funneling investment into a weapon that was tailored to the war on terror. It was a product of the 1990s, evolving for the post-9/11 wars.