Between Iran's nuclear ambitions and Syria's civil war, no country has a more compelling need for long-range intelligence than Israel. It therefore comes as no surprise that the Israelis are expanding their surveillance reach with a new military organization called “Depth Command” that relies heavily on long-endurance unmanned aircraft.

A similar, long-range reconnaissance 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 Palmachim AB south of Tel Aviv. Its tasks include monitoring disputed gas fields and ship traffic in the Mediterranean. Pinpointing missile and rocket launch sites in Gaza, Lebanon and the Sinai is another task.

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 (IAI)-built Heron 1 and the Elbit-designed Hermes 450. 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 was set up to coordinate long-range operations deep in enemy territory and to take advantage of highly trained special forces and new technologies such as long-range UAVs equipped with multifunction sensors and weapons. Boeing's MV-22 was considered for the Depth Command mission but was abandoned for being too costly.

The organization's leader—Maj. Gen. Shai Avital, the former chief of the Sayeret Matkal special force—was brought out of retirement for the post. Interdiction of supplies being shipped to Arab militants is a key goal. Missions that destroyed arms convoys in Sudan that were being smuggled from Iran to militants in Egypt's Sinai have been linked to the large Heron TP, which is flown by a different squadron.

The Persian Gulf and Iran are both within range of the 20-hr.-endurance fleet of Heron TPs. Brig. Gen. Amikam Norkin, the Israeli air force's new chief of operations, notes that the unmanned aircraft is versatile and can be adapted to new missions. Other senior IAF officials contend that both the Heron 1 and Heron TP will be able to conduct new missions as they become relevant. The Elbit-made Hermes 450 and Heron TP are thought to carry air-to-ground weapons to shorten the time between target detection and strike.

Iran's nuclear and missile programs are a major surveillance target.

“The real threat is a nuclear weapon exploding over Tel Aviv,” a former chief of intelligence for the Israel Defense Forces tells Aviation Week. “But there are too many moving parts to make a rational judgment of when an attack on Iran might come. The attack [against the nuclear complex] is doable. I don't think there will be a regional war. If Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz, who will suffer? About 80% of Iran's foreign-currency income comes from oil. There will be a limited reaction because they won't be surprised. They've been waiting for an attack for five years. What is important is that the maximum effect would be a five-year delay [in the nuclear program].”

In the meantime, there are more immediate targets on Israel's borders that require the attention of UAVs.

“We realized we needed real-time intelligence of what was going on behind enemy lines,” says Maj. G, an executive officer of the 200 Sqdn. “Today we fly the Hermes 450, Heron 1 Shoval and Heron TP in several squadrons.” (The officer's full name has been withheld for security reasons.)

The 200 Sqdn.'s missions include daytime reconnaissance during battles, sea patrol with the navy, and hunting rocket launchers and mortars on almost a daily basis.

The Shoval carries multiple types of payloads in two sensor compartments. The mission is interchangeable with those flown from an air base in Tel Aviv by the manned reconnaissance aircraft of 100 Sqdn.

“But,” G notes, “they have very large payloads that are too heavy [for the UAVs]. 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 a launch is detected, the sensor is zoomed in very fast to find the source of the launch and track whoever may be fleeing the site. The location is transferred to other aircraft to perform the attack.

“We work with helicopters on almost a daily basis to transfer targets,” says G. “We look from overhead and they look from the side. They make noise so they stay farther away. That's one of our techniques.”

During the urban fighting in Jenin several years ago, armed helicopters masked themselves behind terrain and fired on coordinates provided by UAVs.

“I can say we are flying above Gaza to the south, the West Bank to the east, in the north [possibly over Lebanon and Syria] and in the west [over the Mediterranean] without being detected,” says G. “It is not stealthy, but it is silent and very discrete. The Heron 1 can stay in the air for 30 hours or more, depending on the payload and configuration of the UAV.”

Israeli officials say that Russian-made SA-24, man-portable, surface-to-air missiles were looted from Libyan warehouses and transported by Iranians through Sudan and turned over to militants in Gaza and Lebanon. However, G would not address the SA-24 threat directly.

“We have the ability to adapt to all the relevant threats and to adjust our flight profiles,” he says. “We receive updated intelligence on them every day.”

Israeli UAV operations differ somewhat from those conducted by the U.S. Air Force.

“It's different from the U.S., where one group [handles takeoff of the aircraft] in Afghanistan and then transfers control to UAV units in [Creech AFB, Nev.], and the images are analyzed in the Pentagon,” says G. “Here, everything is inside the ground-control station [GCS]. Where we are different from [manned] squadrons is that over 80 percent of our flights are operational. Most are[surveillance and reconnaissance], but we also give close [intelligence] support and bomb damage assessment.”

Direct support involves talking directly to an infantry platoon leader. Indirect support is communicating to the tactical air control party who is then in direct contact with the infantry.

The GCS has three positions: two to operate the aircraft, and one that is often occupied by a specialist for sea or ground ops. The crewman on the right operates the cameras and serves as an alternative pilot. The crewman on the left is in charge of the mission flight envelope and talks to air control about issues with the mission.

“I think Israel is the only country in the world that issues licenses for all the activities related to flying drones, even in civilian airspace,” says G.