A very interesting statistic from the Israeli Air Force

The Israeli Air Force is renowned as a ferociously effective defender of its country.  Its pilots are amongst the most professional in the world, and it operates the most up-to-date aircraft it can afford.  Therefore, I was struck by an interview given to Breaking Defense, revealing a very interesting statistic.

“Last year 78 percent of the IAF’s operational flight hours were performed by UAS [unmanned aerial systems]. This year the number jumped and is 80 percent,” Lt. Col. S. told me at the Tel-Nof Air Force base, where the largest Israeli drone, the Heron-TP flies from.

The Heron, the squadron commander said, is performing a long list of missions, including many that were performed until recently by manned aircraft. The IAF has already replaced some manned squadrons with new UAS squadrons to perform the same missions. Reflecting this shift, the number of Herons, a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone, has grown by 50 percent recently. Its flight hours have soared by more than 25 percent since the beginning of 2018. “Some of the force’s manned squadrons, can perform similar missions to the ones we perform, but we have the advantage of long endurance,”  Lt. Col. S. said.

. . .

“Most of our missions require long endurance and high altitude. The max operational altitudes of the UAS is up to 45.000 feet,” the squadron commander said. “The high degree of redundancy put into this UAS enables very long, uninterrupted missions, some times under very complex conditions.”

. . .

These drones are deployed on many missions, including persistent surveillance of areas such as Syria where the Iranians are upgrading rockets to be used by the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Sinai desert.

There’s more at the link.

For an air force like Israel’s, which trains its pilots constantly, to use only 20% of its flying hours for manned operations, says a great deal.  I’m sure part of that is the longer-range missions its UAV’s undertake, such as surveillance of Iran, areas of Africa such as Sudan, and persistent loitering observation of Lebanon and Syria.  Transit time to and from the areas of operations takes up many flying hours, and turning circles over an area of interest for 24+ hours even more.  Nevertheless, it’s still eye-opening to realize just how often, and how long, its UAV’s are in the air.  It must be one of the most intensive operators of such missions in the world, rivaling even the US Air Force or other first-line competitors.  Certainly, I’d guess it’s in the top three worldwide.

This also highlights how operationally essential such missions have become.  One simply can’t keep pilots aloft for such extended periods.  The human body can’t take the strain.  There’s also the danger factor;  the loss of an unmanned UAV costs money, but not lives, whereas a pilot would be at much greater risk over some of the areas where the IAF operates.  Without UAV’s, Israel simply could not monitor areas of interest to the extent that it requires.

That, of course, raises the question of arming UAV’s for air strikes.  The USAF has done so for decades in the so-called War on Terror, but Israel hasn’t been very forthcoming about its operations with armed pilotless aircraft.  The Heron-TP is certainly capable of that;  it’s been sold to India in an armed version.  The trouble is, in the absence of an on-scene pilot to make a judgment call, there’s always the potential for “collateral damage”, where civilians are injured or killed.  The USA is said to have killed hundreds of innocent persons in the course of UAV airstrikes against targets judged to be legitimate.  Has Israel done likewise?  Nobody knows, or, if they know, they’re not saying.

Has the USAF ever released statistics about what proportion of its flying hours are carried out by UAV’s?  I haven’t found any.  Readers?



  1. Having not clicked through to the source but read between the lines of what you quoted, I'm thinking that having the following impression would be wrong:

    • much of what would have been flight hours for manned aircraft have been replaced with UAVs

    And the following impression would be much closer to the truth:

    • because UAVs give them inexpensive and extremely useful new capabilities for surveillance, their total flight hours are many times greater than what they were.

    I'm sure that there is quite a bit of mission replacement where they feel the potential upside isn't worth the hours on the more expensive equipment now that it can be done with UAVs, but I'd be surprised if the number of flight hours for pilots of manned aircraft is down by a great amount.

  2. "The trouble is, in the absence of an on-scene pilot to make a judgment call, there's always the potential for "collateral damage", where civilians are injured or killed. "

    The same things happen with pilots on the spot; collateral damage happens all the time. You can't see and know everything from the air, especially at 500 kts. You do your best and sometimes there is collateral damage.

    I was doing weapons test back in the 1990's for Navy and Marine Corp fighter aircraft; I could see even back then that manned aircraft would go the way of the steam ship. This is especially true for the Israelis, as the last thing they need is one of their pilots being tortured on camera by their enemies. UAV's eliminate this problem.

  3. I think unknown is probably right. When you start comparing 10-12 hour missions with 1-2 hour missions for manned aircraft, the gross percentages change dramatically. Also, altitude is the key to wide area surveillance, 190 mile horizon for manned and 270 mile horizon for unmanned makes a BIG difference capability.

  4. I suspect that anti-Israeli forces have been saying' "The Jooos killed all these civilians with Drones!" , but having been burned badly by various older fakes, the Western Press (which is trying desperately to remain relevant long enough to throw the 2020 election to the Democrats) is ignoring them. The thing is, the anti-Israel forces would be saying, "The Jooos killed all these civilians with drones" even if the drones were provably raising people from the dead.

  5. Calling drones M.A.L.E. is sexist.

    There is still a role for manned aircraft but those high endurance missions are not it. The Israelis are on the right track.

  6. As my background is in ground support to manned experiments in low Earth orbit I would be highly interested in the operational procedures the Israelis have put in place for their UAV controllers. Working Spacelab missions that required constant support over a two week period, then transitioning to ISS support which has been constant for years now, we found that each console position requires at least five warm bodies to cover with seven being better. This for 8 hour shifts with a 30 minute handover each end, food and drinks on console, ability to leave the console unattended for brief periods (restroom breaks), and over time off console vacations and training.
    Lessons learned from the Apollo program where ground support worked 12 and 12 for the duration, cadre personnel's health and personal relationships paid the price, so there were active attempts to do things better.

  7. It probably is a combination of both factors, freeing manned missions for more sensitive missions requiring a human pilot, while expanding surveillance, counter surveillance, elint missions without risking a whole crew (P-3s, AWACS and such are nice big juicy targets, replaceable by 3-6 UAVs that are not so easy targets.)

    Have a friend who used to fly War-Hoovers who transitioned into UAVs. Without saying much, he basically inferred that civilians are more at ease with losing a drone vs losing a piloted aircraft.

  8. They don't say what that 20% is spent doing; some of that might be manned operations to get additional details on what's discovered by the UAVs.

    Also left unanswered is what capability the UAVs have; one assumes cameras, obviously, along with a certain amount of stealth, but sensors come in all sizes, colors and flavors, and a little bit of on-scene AI can go a long way. Not to mention UAVs themselves can come in different sizes, colors and flavors, tailored to whatever the mission is.

    And, as far as arming UAVs, I wouldn't rule out the possibility of the UAV itself being the armed weapon; think of it as a "500 kilo self-destruct functionality." Gotta keep the wizard stuff seekret, doncha kno.

  9. The fact that most of that time is across international borders simply makes for the greatest casus belli for all the affected countries.

    Flying aircraft over other people's territory, frankly, is grounds for lighting you up every time you do it.

    So all they've done is admit that all those PLO rockets coming their way from Palestinian territory are just desserts. If they're doing it over Iran, that will soon come with a nuke attached.

    Some times, Israel needs to learn when to STFU.

  10. Aesop:

    The Israelis typically make statements like that to send a message to their opponents. (I'm reminded of the time they had a general make a statement at an airfield during the Gulf War. Pointing at an alert aircraft, with a large white underwing munition, and stating that if any NBC SCUD delivered warheads hit Israel, it flies. He was clearly inferring that it was one of their unacknowledged nukes.)

    I suspect it might be to remind them that there is no living pilot in the aircraft to be concerned with, so their ROE may be broader as a result.

  11. I'm well aware of that.

    The problem is, they're sending that message on a party line, and a roadside billboard, and not everyone thinks such nonsense is either bright, nor necessary.

    Including your previous allies.

    That always comes with a price tag.

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