Israel’s Pioneering Drones Led Way For US

The U.S. Navy recently made a big publicity splash when it boasted that the operation of a stealth drone on an aircraft carrier in Chesapeake Bay was a historic first. It was about 30 years late.  The Navy’s first carrier operations of a drone were on the USS Guam off the coast of Israel in 1984, and the drones were Israeli-built.

The Navy said the landing of the experimental X-47B, which looks like a miniature B-2 stealth bomber, on the USS George H.W. Bush last May was “the first ever launch of an unmanned aircraft from an aircraft carrier”

Israel has long been the world leader in drone – called Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) – aircraft and had proven very successful in combat at a time when the only thing soaring for the American Aquila program was its cost; the project itself, which couldn’t get off the ground, was considered an expensive failure during the Reagan administration while Israel was the world leader in that technology.

Writing in the October issue of Naval History magazine (out early this month), Naval historian Norman Polmar traces the modern Navy’s unmanned aircraft program to its roots in Israel.

During the Vietnam War drones flew reconnaissance missions over North Vietnam and on antisubmarine missions, but wasn’t until the 1980s that the Navy launched a large-scale UAV  program, and faced with the Aquila failure the Navy turned to Israeli-developed and combat-proven drones like the Mastiff and Scout.

Secretary of the Navy John Lehman wanted a UAV for the Navy and Marines to perform gunfire spotting for battleships and reconnaissance.  He was aware of the great success of Israeli UAV’s in the 1982 Lebanon war, where they made it possible for Israel to destroy 86 Syrian SAM missile sites in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon without losing a single plane of their own.

Lehman sent a top aide and naval aviator to Israel to do an evaluation, and then Lehman himself “made a personal deal with Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin to acquire” Israeli mastiff UAVs, Polmar writes.  Those aircraft became the first UAVs to operate off an American carrier deck in 1984, when they began training operations from the helicopter carrier Guam off the coast of Israel nearly 20 years before the X-47B.

The Pentagon initially bought 72 UAV’s called Pioneer, designed and partially manufactured in Israel and built in a joint US-Israeli venture.  They could operate from land bases or ships and were used extensively in Operation Desert Storm, where at least one was airborne at all times during the conflict, according to Polmar. 

The Pioneer’s most famous moment came on February 27, 1991, when 40 Iraqi soldiers in Faylaka Island surrendered to an unarmed UAV launched from the battleship Wisconsin.

Polmar explains: “Previous Pioneer overflights had led to precisely targeted air attacks on their patrol boats and island trenches, causing the Iraqis to believe that detection by the drone would result in similar attacks. It was history’s first known surrender of troops to an unmanned vehicle.”

Israel today is the leading exporter of UAV for both military and civilian use, although the United States is probably leading manufacturer but mostly for the Pentagon and close allies.

There’s a lot of talk about how much aid the United States gives Israel; this is another good example of how much the United States military gets from Israel.  Combat proven Israeli technology was operational long before the Pentagon could launch its own UAV’s.  Today’s advanced American drones like the Predator owe their success to Israeli pioneering in the field.

The Predator, which has seen combat over at least eight countries and has been called “America’s most successful and most feared military drone,” was designed by an Israeli immigrant, Abraham Karem, former chief designer for the Israeli Air Force.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.