Major S stands in front of a UAV. | Image: Jason Hiner
Cyber-Security in Israel involves a lot more than repelling hackers on the Internet.
by Jason Hiner
While the Israeli Defense Forces are known for their effectiveness and resourcefulness, as you approach the Palmahim Airbase south of Tel Aviv you might be surprised to discover that this is a world-class military facility.
Exiting the highway to a road that is only occasionally paved, there’s an abandoned cinderblock facility surrounded by a wire fence with tires and metal objects strewn across the open grassy area. It looks more like something you’d expect in a post-industrial town in Pennsylvania or Ohio than on the base of one of the most high tech fighting forces in the world.
As we drive past the building and head toward our rendezvous, our two IDF handlers turn around and smile and remind us of the rules. The person we’re going to meet can only be referred to as “Major S,” for safety and security reasons. While our handlers are both young ladies with an air of sweetness and optimism about them, on this point they speak with an unequivocal authority and finality—despite the smiles.
Both are wearing green military fatigues and in the spare moments between their duties as communications reps they are happy to unfold the berets strapped to the shoulders of their uniforms and explain how the colors represent the division of the IDF that they serve. Slender, petite, and energetic, in the U.S. they would likely be preparing for a soccer game or a senior prom. In Israel, the two conscripts are leading a small group of journalists to meet a military officer who runs an operation that protects millions of citizens.
When Major S enters, he looks barely older than the two conscripts. His green uniform is a one-piece flight suit. The sleeves are pushed up his forearms and the zipper on the front is open down to mid-chest, showing a gray t-shirt underneath. His shy smile makes him look even younger. But when his face straightens, it unmasks a care-worn look in his eyes that reflects all the Israelis in constant danger that he must help protect.
These kids have old souls.
Major S is the deputy commander of the First UAV Squadron, a division of the Israeli Air Force. Despite his babyface smile, he’s actually 30 years old with over a decade of service in the military. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicles that he manages are the eyes in the sky that keep watch on Israel’s borders as well as some of its aggressive neighbors who would love nothing better than to push modern Israel into the sea and pretend it never existed. Israel relies on the UAVs to run at least 50 hours of operations every day, according to Major S. Obviously, that means they are running multiple drones in multiple locations at all times. That’s a lot of data.
“The most important thing is to collect information… every day of the year,” says Major S.
A UAV hovers at 10,000 feet, he says. “You can’t hear it and you can’t see it from the ground.”
Of course, the cynical view is that Israel uses UAVs to spy on its neighbors and invade their airspace. But, Israel has been facing existential threats from its neighbors since the day the modern State of Israel was founded on May 15, 1948 as a result of a UN resolution. Israel has had a bitter peace with Egypt since 1979. It’s had a slightly more cordial peace with Jordan since 1994. Lebanon and Syria remain sworn enemies. And, the country’s tenuous relationship with the Palestinian territories (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) is well known.
For the moment, Gaza is the biggest problem spot. When Israel withdrew its occupying forces from Gaza in 2005, the radical elements of Palestine used it to seize power and have been firing rockets at Israeli cities ever since. Israel has, of course, retaliated and civilians have been caught in the crossfire on both sides, but Israel has been losing the PR war. The Palestinians have done a far better job of publicizing the attacks against them and helping create a narrative in the international media that paints Israel as a callous oppressor.
Major S opens his laptop and plays a video from the bird’s eye view of the drone. In this case, a UAV has identified a suicide bomber and is tracking it. The UAV operator is communicating with ground forces to intercept it. Just as they are about to pounce on it, the UAV operator frantically interrupts and tells them to wait as he spots Palestinian kids up ahead of where the bomber’s vehicle is heading. After it clears the area, we see the IDF vehicles cut off the car bomber and the IDF soldiers jump out and surround the car. A soldier with body armour approaches the suicide bomber in the driver’s seat, gets hit with several bullets, but pulls the driver out of the vehicle and the soldiers apprehend him. No harm done.
“In the Gaza Strip there are 1.5 to 2 million people and most of them are not terrorists,” says Major S. “They just want to live their lives like me and my family. But our enemies know that and they try to [hide near civilians].”
He shows a couple more videos where disasters were averted and Palestinian and Israeli lives were saved from potential attacks. But, he won’t let us publish the videos. He says they have released very few of these to the public in the past and he’s always reluctant to allow it, because every video will be studied by terrorists and used to figure out how to evade the UAVs.
His implicit message is that his job is not to feed information to the press to make Israel look more sympathetic to the international community. His job is to protect lives. As polite as he is, it’s clear that every moment he spends with us is a moment he’s not doing his real job, and he needs to get back to it.
He says there is a warehouse that the UAVs have been continually tracking for three weeks. They know there is “bad stuff” being stored in there. As soon as that stuff starts to move then there’s going to be a big problem that will need to be handled. His team is working with Israeli intelligence to make sure it doesn’t turn into a tragic incident.
He walks us out to the hangars where the UAVs are located along with the command stations where the UAV operators run them. The command stations are like a whirlwind marriage between a sit-down arcade video game and a server room.
UAVs are the future, Major S asserts. The Israeli Air Force keeps closing down traditional squadrons and keeps opening new UAV squadrons. He also pointed to the fact the F-35 is the last manned fighter jet that the Americas are going to make. It’s an inevitable trend.
“The wars we have today are not the same as what we had 20 years ago,” he says. “It’s a race. Everybody tries to get more capabilities and better technology.”
He gestures toward one of the newest drones. “If everyone is using this, then the one with the best technology wins.”
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