TEL AVIV — Israel’s military has expanded its intelligence-gathering reach with a new organization called the “Depth Command” that involves operations beyond the country’s borders, and many of those missions require long-endurance unmanned aircraft.

A similar mission was being conducted by a stealthy, U.S.-operated, Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel flying out of Afghanistan when it crashed in Iran. Israel is flying both larger and smaller UAVs on Depth Command missions. They include Heron 1s operated by 200 Sqdn. from a commercial airfield near Tel Aviv. Its missions include monitoring disputed gas fields and ship traffic in the Mediterranean, as well as pinpointing missile and rocket launch sites in Gaza, Lebanon and the Sinai.

In fact, twin-boom Heron 1s were photographed monitoring the fighting in Syria, but whether they were Turkish or Israeli aircraft is unknown. Both countries operate the Israel Aerospace Industries-built Heron I and the Elbit-designed Hermes 750. The latter has been used as a rocket-firing strike platform in other conflicts. The strike capability and training to use it efficiently are quietly offered by some Israeli companies.

The seven-month-old Depth Command is designed to coordinate long-range operations deep in enemy territory and to take greater advantage of highly trained special forces and new technologies such as long-range unmanned aircraft equipped with precision, multifunction sensors and weapons. Boeing’s MV-22 was considered for the Depth Command mission, but was reluctantly abandoned as too costly.

The organization is commanded by the former chief of the Sayeret Matkal special force, Maj. Gen. Shai Avital, who was brought out of retirement for the post. A primary mission is interdicting supplies being shipped to Arab militants. Missions that destroyed arms convoys in Sudan that were being smuggled from Iran to militants in Egypt’s Sinai have been attributed to the large Heron TP, which is flown by a different squadron. Another target for surveillance is Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.

“We realized we needed real-time intelligence of what was going on behind enemy lines,” says Maj. G, executive officer of 200 Sqdn. “Today we fly the Hermes 750, Heron 1 Shoval and Heron TP in several squadrons.” (The officer’s full name was withheld for security reasons.)

The squadron’s missions are real-time intelligence, daytime reconnaissance during battles, sea patrol with the Navy and hunting rocket launchers and mortars on an almost daily basis.

The Shoval carries multiple types of payloads in two sensor compartments. The mission is interchangeable with those flown by the manned reconnaissance aircraft of 100 Sqdn. that share the base.

“But they have very large payloads that are too heavy [for the UAVs], G says. “We use smaller, but more advanced cameras so the performance is not too bad. Depending on the areas we are working, the manned aircraft may have to stand off at long range.”

A favorite surveillance method is to use a wide field-of-view staring mode. When it detects a launch, the sensor is zoomed in very fast to find the source and track whomever may be fleeing the site. The 12-figure location is transferred to other aircraft to perform the attack.

“It is not stealthy, but it is silent and very discreet. The Heron 1 can stay in the air for 30 hours or more depending on the payload and configuration of the UAV.”