Nov. 16, 2014 - By BARBARA OPALL-ROME – Defense News
Scores First Enemy Intercept in 30-Year History of US-Built System
TEL AVIV — With newly war-tested batteries of drone-killing Patriots, air defenders of Israel Air Force (IAF) Wing 168 are earning equal footing with F-16s in guarding the skies against new and growing unmanned threats.
The Wing’s Patriot force forms the ground-based node of Israel’s extensively integrated air defense network — historically junior partner to IAF fighters in their joint intercept mission against air-breathing threats.
But as traditional threats from fast-flying fighters and other manned aircraft give way to a surging new spectrum of slow, potentially combat-equipped UAVs, Wing 168 and its US-built force is proving a prime time option for frontline defense.
Three times in the past four months, US-built Patriot batteries of Wing 168 made history here and for users worldwide by blasting UAVs out of the skies that had penetrated Israel’s northern and southern borders.
The first intercept came on July 14 against a Gaza-launched drone. Israeli Patriots scored again on July 17 against the second and last of the unmanned aircraft attempting to penetrate from Gaza during the 50-day war.
The third unmanned target came from the north and was quickly destroyed in an Aug. 31 intercept near the Syrian border.
Prior to last summer’s Gaza war, Israel-operated Patriots shared the same track record as all other anti-air variants built by Raytheon for the US Army and at least 10 other countries: Zero intercepts of enemy aircraft.
They came close in October 2012, maintaining full target tracking of a Lebanon-launched UAV as it flew over two-thirds of the country. “Our Patriots were ready for intercept orders,” recalled Brig. Gen. Doron Gavish, IAF air defense commander at the time.
The mission ultimately went to F-16s, which downed the target just north of Israel’s nuclear facility in the southern Negev desert.
Nearly a decade earlier, US Patriot batteries forward deployed in Iraq came tragically too close, mistakenly intercepting a British Tornado and an F/A-18.
Three allied airmen were killed by friendly Patriot fire in March and April of 2003 in attacks marking an all-time low in the 30-year operational track record of the US anti-air system.
But from that all-time low, officers and experts say inherent UAV-killing capabilities recently validated by Wing 168 will eventually benefit other nations that rely on Patriot anti-air batteries to defend against growing unmanned threats.
A senior IAF commander noted that just a decade ago, the threat from UAVs was rare. “Today, it’s a huge problem. We bear the brunt of it today, but soon many others will face similar threats.”
He was interviewed Nov. 11, a day before Iran’s state-run Press TV released footage of what Tehran claims is the maiden flight of an the unmanned system reverse-engineered from a US RQ-170 Sentinel captured in late 2011.
At the time, the Pentagon confirmed Iranian’s claims that the reconnaissance UAV took off from Afghanistan. It has not commented on Tehran’s parallel claim that its cyber forces hacked into the aircraft’s control system, forcing it to land in Iran.
Herzl Bodinger, a retired major general and former IAF commander, said enemy states and non-state terror organizations are expanding their arsenals of UAVs as a cheap and more effective way to attack Israel by air.
“Enemy states have learned not to challenge our airspace and lose their prize assets,” he said.
Far overshadowing the UAV threat from Gaza that debuted in last summer’s war with Hamas is the increasingly capable unmanned force amassed by Hezbollah since Israel’s 2006 Lebanon war.
Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, a former commander of Israel’s Northern Command, estimated that Lebanon-based Hezbollah holds “an unlimited number” of UAVs initially supplied by Iran and since supplemented by a range of other systems.
Also in Syria, experts here cite an uptick in UAV use by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, some of which may have fallen into hands of insurgents fighting to topple the Damascus regime.
As the officer who took command of the IAF a year after Patriots were first deployed here during the 1991 war in Iraq, Bodinger said the system that initially disappointed Israel as an anti-missile interceptor has provided significant added value in its anti-air role.
“For our purposes, the Patriot is excellent against aircraft; a critical part of our continuously upgraded system of integrated air defenses.”
Raytheon spokeswoman Bailey Sargent deferred to the Israeli government and the IAF when contacted for comment. “Patriot is the air and missile defense system of choice for 13 countries around the world,” was all she had to say.
Israeli officers roundly acknowledge that the first UAV to breach sovereign airspace — an Iranian Mirsad launched from Lebanon in late 2004 — came by surprise.
When pressed, most also acknowledge that the second unmanned infiltration from Lebanon, in April 2005, was a mistake. Israel’s integrated air defenses were not yet fully honed against the small, stealthy unmanned threat.
“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” retired Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedy, then commander of the IAF, told Defense News at the time.
By the time war broke out in Lebanon in June 2006, the IAF’s fortified target detection and classification network helped F-16s score their first intercept against a Hezbollah Ababil.
At least five unmanned planes have penetrated Israeli airspace since then, three of them destroyed in recent months by Wing 168.
“Today, we’re finding many needles in the haystack,” Col. Chemi Bar-El, 168 Wing commander, said.
Bar-El acknowledged “a healthy competition” between ground- and air-based nodes of the net, which provide multiple options for each target.
With such limited airspace and so many threats, Bar-El said Israeli air defenders don’t have the luxury of finding out in real time the intentions of unauthorized penetrations.
“We have a very clear policy: If it flies it dies,” Bar-El said.