30 Years Later, Israel’s ‘Central Project’ Finally Revealed: Drones

Decades after top military officials picked drones as the aircraft of the future, Israel officially admitted that they are used in ‘operational activity’

An Elbit Hermes 450 UAV, nicknamed ‘Zik’ in Hebrew.

It was the most important decision taken by Yitzhak Rabin as defense minister and Ehud Barak as chief of staff: to base the military’s power on armed, pilotless airborne vehicles. Israel would have a mobile, light and rapid force which could be concentrated against a land invasion by an enemy army or dispatched on special missions without risking the lives of pilots.

The idea was bandied about in the defense establishment since the 1980s, under a thick veil of secrecy, and presented to the public as an alternative to the Lavi project – the fighter jet that was then being planned in Israel with U.S. support and financing. The Lavi took its maiden flight, but the Americans ended up preferring to supply the air force with F-16 jets, causing the project to be shelved in 1987. The alternative, as it was called then, was the “Dagger,” a pilotless armed stealth jet, which the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) began to develop, using an engine made by the American Garrett company.

But then came an alternative to the alternative, advanced by Barak after he became chief of staff in 1991. He favored putting aside the sophisticated and expensive Dagger, which was as large as the veteran Skyhawk jet. It was obvious that the military could only equip itself with a small number of Daggers, and that their production would depend on the willingness of the Americans to supply the engines. A small company called Silver Arrow offered the army a new concept involving small drones. These would be able to carry fewer armaments, but they could be produced in Israel in large numbers, building up a significant force. Elbit Systems, wanting to compete with the IAI, bought the start-up and led the new project, called Hermes 450 (or Zik in Hebrew).

Rabin won the election in the summer of 1992 and replaced Moshe Arens at the Defense Ministry. Arens was a former aerospace industries man, a patron of the Lavi and a supporter of the Dagger. Barak pushed for a re-evaluation of the armed drone plan. The relevant industries prepared for the fight of their lives. It was clear that the project chosen, Dagger or Zik, would determine the composition of the country’s air power for generations, as well as establishing the leader of Israel’s military technology, the government-owned IAI or the private Elbit Systems. In contrast to the dispute over the Lavi, which aired in the open, the war over drones was held under strict censorship.

My colleague Emmanuel Rosen from Maariv and I, as a new reporter on defense industries at Haaretz, reported on the power struggle at the top of the defense establishment under the cover name “the battle over the central project.” The censor played along as long as we gave no hint as to the nature of the weapons system or its capabilities. Industry chiefs tried to win us over to their side, and senior army brass convened journalists for enigmatic briefings about a large military exercise carried out by Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, without telling us what was being tried out. Whoever got it, got it.

In early 1993, the die was cast in favor of Barak and the Zik. The Dagger project was terminated, and the IAI got a consolation prize as a subcontractor of Elbit. Dayan’s exercise showed that squadrons of Zik unmanned aerial vehicles could defend the Golan Heights against a surprise attack by Syria, such as the one in the Yom Kippur War. When Barak became prime minister in 1999, he believed that the armed drones would provide a flying protective barrier in case the Golan was returned to Syria in a peace agreement. He presented this idea to his cabinet.

The peace process with Syria got bogged down and the second intifada broke out in the territories. Ariel Sharon, who succeeded Barak, approved the use of offensive drones for assassinations in the Gaza Strip. The best known of these attacks was the killing of Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin in 2004. Even though every Palestinian in Gaza was familiar with this weapons system and its capabilities, the censorship regarding armed drones remained in place, although their exact definition in Hebrew changed. There were even official announcements on the “use of aerial vehicles.” When the U.S. Army and intelligence services also started using offensive drones for assassinating al-Qaeda and Islamic State members, Israel held its silence, until censorship was removed on Wednesday, almost 30 years after Rabin’s approval for developing the Zik instead of the Dagger.

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