drone pilot industryHow the IAF has become a more inclusive military

September 17, 2021by helo-10

Palmahim air base is one of the Israel Air Force’s largest bases, and in recent years has become its busiest, with remotely piloted aircraft taking off from the airfield dozens of times daily.

Located within a nature reserve, close to 5,000 service members are stationed at the base southwest of Rishon Lezion, which, until recently, was commanded by Brig.-Gen. Yoav Amiram.

The Jerusalem Post met with Amiram on his last day as base commander and spoke with him about the changes he witnessed throughout his career – from a more technological air force to a more inclusive military.

Amiram, who served close to 30 years in the IAF, was trained as a helicopter pilot and flew several different platforms before being appointed to command roles and then finally as Palmahim base commander for the past three years.

“Everything is so different from when I started, and technology has had a big effect,” he said. “Twenty years ago we were really far from the capabilities that we have today in the IAF. Today, there’s a lot more technology, but at the end of the day, the responsibility that is given to you is still the same.”

Palmahim was founded 50 years ago as a missile and satellite test base and remains one of the only locations in Israel where satellites are launched to space.

Like Israel’s air force, the satellite industry is a key component of the Jewish state’s strategic military capabilities. They are the real eye in the sky, keeping a close eye on Israel’s enemies 24/7 from afar.

Last July, the Ofek 16 satellite was launched into orbit using a Shavit launcher – which according to foreign reports is used to launch Jericho ballistic missiles. It later sent back a number of images, including one from over the Syrian city of Palmyra, close to where Iranian forces are known to operate.

The fact that Israel is one of 13 countries with satellite-launching capabilities is not a given. And the launch alone is in itself a great achievement – it is carried out to the west, against the rotation of the Earth, so that its trajectory takes it out over the Mediterranean Sea, avoiding any enemy territory during the launch period.

As a result of launching westward, Ofek satellites operate in retrograde orbits and decrease the launcher’s payload capacity, as it requires more thrust to place the satellite into orbit compared to if it would fly eastward.

“It’s amazing to see that such a small country has the ability to launch satellites,” Amiram said. “Israeli satellites are the smallest in the world but the strongest in terms of capabilities. But it’s something that has to work to the second and exact millimeter. It’s not simple.”

But satellites aren’t the only eyes in the skies that take off from Palmahim.

Over the past decade, the IAF’s operational use of drones has increased drastically, with almost every operation now seeing the use of these devices.

IAF drone squadrons fly about 80% of all IAF flight hours, and with four drone squadrons based at Palmahim AFB, 70% of all IAF flight hours take off from the base.

Drones played a significant and integral part in Operation Guardian of the Walls in May, with most of them taking off from Palmahim. According to IDF data, 643 missions were done by drones for a total of 132.6 flight hours during the 11 days of fighting with terror groups in the Gaza Strip.

According to Amiram, the IDF’s Momentum multiyear plan had a significant impact on the fighting, including the drone units, which were an instrumental part of real-time intelligence gathering.

With the army’s drone school located at Palmahim, operators learn how to fly and maintain these aircraft, at the base where many of them will serve.

“We train them to be fighters, from the sky,” he said, explaining that “the operators are in the battle, maybe not physically there, but they are an integral part of the battlefield and have an immediate impact.”

While they aren’t manned, it’s always the man or woman on the ground who makes the final decision. A growing trend, the remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) world has a constant dilemma of collateral damage while preserving the safety of the mission.

And unlike American drone operators, who widely operate thousands of kilometers from the battlefield, the fact that these operators are based in Palmahim drives home the point that they are protecting their families, friends and country.

“When you are at Palmahim and a tzeva adom [red alert] siren goes off on the base and at their parent’s home, they know that they are protecting their homes. But it’s not simple. Because the drone operators see everything. If people are hurt [by an airstrike], they see it.”

ANYONE DRIVING to the beach in the Palmahim nature reserve only needs to glance out their window to see the missile defense batteries protecting civilians and infrastructure.

The large air base is also home to the IAF’s Air Defense Division, which is in charge of the country’s comprehensive protective umbrella that counters the growing missile threats.

This includes the Iron Dome, designed to shoot down short-range rockets, the Arrow (Arrow-2 and Arrow-3) system, which intercepts ballistic missiles outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, and the newly operational David’s Sling missile defense system, which is designed to intercept tactical ballistic missiles, medium- to long-range rockets, as well as cruise missiles fired at ranges between 40 to 300 km.

Israel also has three American-made Patriot system batteries, a long-range, all-altitude defense system to counter tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and advanced aircraft.

Also at the base is the IAF’s Shaldag special forces unit (one of the IDF’s most elite units), the 123rd Black Hawk Squadron, the IAF’s 7th Wing (the new special operations wing), the military’s drone school, a simulator squadron for RPAs and helicopters and more.

“After the initial shock of getting here, you can understand the potential that this base has,” Amiram said. “There’s the IAF, ground forces, navy, defense companies… there’s a lot of heterogeneity at Palmahim.”

But it’s not only the military platforms that led Amiram to be proud of the base he commanded over, it was the social inclusion and school at the base that brought a sparkle to his eyes.

Right next to the drone school is the ATID Palmahim vocational high school for 300 at-risk teenagers, who are mentored by troops. Many of them, Amiram said, then draft into professional technical positions in the military.

Another program on the base is Special in Uniform, which helps to bring youth with autism and other disabilities to volunteer in 20 bases across the country. There are 50-60 volunteers from the program at Palmahim.

“It’s very meaningful, and what the volunteers bring to the base is incredible,” he said. “When troops are working together with the volunteers who have special needs, they come out a lot more aware and see the world differently.”

For Amiram, throughout his 30 years of service, the IDF was not only meant to defend the country, but a central component to Israeli society, and being able to better youth during their service was an important aspect of his role as a commander.

“We need to better our society, we need that to happen,” he said. “We might not get to everyone but we need to get to as many as possible. Everyone here has the same opportunity. It’s a privilege that we need to take advantage of or else we will miss it.”

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