The Shoval UAV Flies Around the Clock
The IAF’s UAV squadron operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. While UAVs
were once regarded as an auxiliary tool for manned aircraft, a visit to the
squadron demonstrates that it is no longer the situation today. UAVs in IDF
service – an inside look
Arie Egozi 6/1/2013
"The number of users constantly increases," says Major S., first deputy to
the squadron commander. "Every day, additional IDF commanders discover the
capabilities of the UAVs, and ask for the squadron's services. The
'permanent' UAVs are often not enough, so another UAV is diverted from a
training mission to assist and satisfy the hunger of the various units for
The people of the squadron are proud of the fact that theirs was the first
UAV squadron in the IAF. At the entrance to the squadron HQ, on a raised
pedestal, stands a Scout (Zehavan) UAV – one of the earliest models flown by
the IAF. It reminds everyone that this squadron has a tradition of more than
40 years' experience in the employment of UAVs.
The UAVs carry either a night/day payload or a night-only payload and have
the ability to designate targets using a laser designator.
UAV technology is developing rapidly, and the squadron does not have a
single UAV that still retains all of the components it contained on the day
it rolled off the assembly line at IAI. When we went out on the runway at
the Palmachim airbase, the external operator was preparing to launch a
Shoval UAV. I asked Major S. why they still needed an external operator when
there are systems capable of fully automatic take-off and landing.
"This ability does exist, but no executive decision to use it has been made
yet," says S. This reminded me of the situation where passenger aircraft
pilots still prefer to land their aircraft manually, although the system in
most modern aircraft models can carry out a fully automatic landing.
Apparently, the people who drive aircraft have a hard time relinquishing
their ability to command the vehicle and allowing the computer to do all the
The task of the external operator was accomplished the moment the UAV left
the runway. As of this moment, command of the flight was handed over to an
air-conditioned trailer manned by the mission commander and payload
operator. The entire mission is commanded from the trailer, with the UAV
enslaved to the camera so as to enable it to take the best possible shots,
as required by the mission.
The squadron also operates, in cooperation with the Israeli Navy, the
maritime Shoval, a UAV that carries, a maritime surveillance radar system by
ELTA, a subsidiary of IAI in addition to the optical payload. Despite its
relatively small dimensions, this radar is fully capable of picking up
targets even when sea conditions are not favorable.
The massive UAV carries both systems without difficulty. The problem of
supplying power to both systems has been resolved as well. According to
major S., because of its size (the UAV has a wing span of about 16
meters),the Shoval UAV is a flexible platform that easily accommodates
additional loads. Some of these additional loads are still confidential, but
this UAV is definitely an "airborne truck" with a highly impressive ability.
Around the world, long-endurance UAVs are fitted with communication systems.
The squadron commander’s first deputy says that it is an excellent
capability that enables the UAV to transmit from long distances, but would
not comment on whether this capability is available to his squadron.
Anyone who ever doubted the position of UAVs in the IAF should just look at
the Palmachim airbase. Helicopter squadrons are closed down and their
missions are performed by UAVs, with great success. For example, the Shoval
UAV has already replaced some of the IAF's maritime patrol aircraft.
Originally manufactured as executive jets, these aircraft, which were
converted many years ago to perform military missions, are costly to operate
and have a limited endurance.
"You launch a maritime surveillance UAV and it can stay over the area of
interest for many hours, longer than any manned platform," says the squadron’s
first deputy. This process is actually happening. More and more UAVs are
employed for maritime patrol missions. In these missions, the ground control
station is manned by Navy personnel. They are familiar with the needs and
remotely control the payloads mounted on the UAV. The squadron's UAVs, as
well as the heavier Heron-TP UAVs are also replacing the Beechcraft B-200
King Air intelligence aircraft of the IAF.
The activity on the apron around which the UAV hangars are arranged is
intensive. Additional UAVs are being prepared for flight. Mechanics in blue
coveralls hook the UAVs to power supply sockets and check the various
systems. It looks like any fighter squadron, but the dimensions of the
aircraft are smaller – that is the only difference. There is an atmosphere
of 'action' in the air, a tangible desire to perform every mission in the
best and most effective manner possible.
Everyone realizes how critical the squadron's UAVs are to the routine
missions of the IDF and other security agencies.
The UAV Operators
Like the other UAV squadrons of the IDF, the squadron "spots" potential UAV
operators long before they are actually recruited. The two civilian-attired
gentlemen standing near the landing strip in Rishon LeZion last year looked
around them with interest. They focused their attention on two youngsters
who were busy flying their radio-controlled model aircraft, demonstrating
amazing control of the miniature models. Deftly manipulating the remote
control devices they were holding in their hands, they made the flying
models execute breathtaking maneuvers in the sky.
This is how the military service of these two youngsters began. After more
than a year, they became UAV operators in the IAF. The transition from
flying sophisticated toys to flying UAVs worth about $10 million each is a
unique process that is typical of Israel as a global UAV superpower. All of
the IAF UAV operators were keen radio-controlled flying model enthusiasts a
few years ago. The IAF realized that this was its natural pool of candidates
for the UAV operator course, and since then it has been sending its people
to spot the prominent talents in the field.
The squadron is extremely busy these days. The events taking place in Israel’s
southern and northern regions provide it with both routine and irregular
missions at an ever-increasing rate.
Major S. wishes to satisfy all of the squadron's "clients", so he would like
to have additional capabilities. Of particular importance, he says, are an
extended operating range that may be provided through the use of advanced
satellite communication systems, and multiple-sensor payloads. He says it is
important that the squadron be provided with an improved radar capability
possibly through SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) systems, which eliminate all
of the problems caused by bad weather and haze.
Are the UAVs you operate capable of performing electronic warfare missions
Major S. says that generally, the UAV can perform almost any mission, owing
to its substantial load carrying capacity.
Then considering the price of a state-of-the-art fighter aircraft like the
F-35 and its missions, which constitute primarily of jamming the enemy's
surveillance layouts, the question that arises is whether UAVs like the
Shoval can perform the mission equally successfully. Major S. says that the
Shoval UAV can perform even these missions, given the appropriate systems.
When you consider an even bigger UAV, like the Heron-TP, the Shoval’s big
brother, then the question is probably being pondered by many fine minds
within the Israeli defense establishment.
The squadron currently works around the clock. While UAVs were once regarded
as an auxiliary tool for manned aircraft, a brief visit to the squadron
demonstrates that it is by no means the current situation. These are
first-rate operational systems, to which additional missions are assigned