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U.S.-Israel Strategic Cooperation: Israeli Drones Support U.S. Operations in Kosovo

by Charles Perkins (July 1999)

Israeli-designed remote-controlled reconnaissance aircraft known as "Unmanned Aerial Vehicles" (UAVs) were critical to the success of NATO’s Operation Allied Force this spring, according to U.S. military officials. Although a number were shot down by Yugoslav forces, the Army’s Hunter UAV and the Navy’s Pioneer drone were used throughout the 78-day air campaign, gathering intelligence and data on bomb damage by NATO in the skies over Kosovo (See NER, April 19, 1999). Israel is the world’s leader in developing UAVs, which have been proven on several occasions to be a vital asset in multiplying the effectiveness of modern armed forces.

In the case of the Hunter, produced in the mid-1990s by Israel Aircraft Industries and TRW and operated by the U.S. Army’s Task Force Hawk in Macedonia, target planners were able to watch live video feed of the Serbian (VJ/MUP) soldiers and weaponry occupying Kosovo. U.S. General Wesley Clark, NATO commander of the operation, testified before the Senate July 1 that "[the Hunters]...were extremely important. This is the first time we really had a chance to apply these in a warfighting situation."

An example of the drone’s importance was provided by a U.S. "deep operations planner," quoted in the June 21 issue of the trade publication Defense News. "At first, when they saw the Hunter flying, [the Yugoslavs] were waving at it, and next thing you know, here comes the strike. Now Serbian troops scatter at the first sight of the Hunter. They know something comes with it. There was a Hunter that tracked a target for 100 minutes and watched the missile go right into [it]."he said.

Not all of the Army’s UAVs were so fortunate. Seven aircraft, almost half the total deployed to the Balkan theater, crashed or were shot down. But the U.S. military sees this in the larger context as a "cost of doing business." These rugged fiberglass aerial platforms are much cheaper than traditional piloted aircraft and each one lost on a reconnaissance patrol may represent a pilots’ life that was saved by not having to undertake the same mission.

The U.S. Navy deployed its own Israeli-designed UAV to support its missions during the Kosovo conflict; the earlier Pioneer drone had proven itself eight years ago in the Gulf War. According to a June 17 feature in the Washington Post, Navy officials credited the Pioneers with having provided NATO commanders valuable intelligence during the operation, flying reconnaissance missions over Kosovo and Serbia.

Six Pioneers were deployed to the Adriatic Sea in April aboard the Navy ship USS Ponce. Operating off the deck of the Ponce, the Pioneers flew more than 80 hours of missions in the Balkans, using their cameras to find Serb tanks and missiles, as well as to assess damage from NATO strikes. The Pioneer was jointly produced by Israel Aircraft Industries and the AAI Corp. in Maryland. Congress has continued to appropriate funds for operations and maintenance of the existing systems.

Sources: AIPAC, Near East Report, (July 12, 1999)