Buzz of Israel's drones resonates throughout region

Mon Dec 5, 2011 9:02am EST
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By Dan Williams

PALMACHIM AIR BASE, Israel (Reuters) - Service in the drone squadrons of Israel, the world's oldest military operator of pilotless aircraft, sometimes begins on the fields of teenaged model plane enthusiasts.

Veteran air force officers scout new talent among radio-controlled model clubs, a drone commander said Monday during a rare media tour of his unit.

"It's a small world, where everyone knows everyone," said Major Gil, who under censorship regulations could not be identified by surname.

"Those youths who show promise and pass the initial tests are admitted to the course (after their conscription)," he said.

Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the drones that dot the skies of Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas of U.S.-led operations began as an Israeli idea for improving real-time battlefield intelligence after the 1967 Middle East war.

"We are the first air force that started to use UAVs in an operational way," Gil said.

Israel's drones, like those of a few foreign powers, have since evolved into a sophisticated fleet of long-range surveillance platforms that are ever-present over the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon.

At a time of regional upheaval, the drones may be helping Israel watch its porous southern frontier with Egypt, site of an armed infiltration in August that killed eight people. In pursuing the gunmen, Israeli forces killed five Egyptian border troops -- an incident that frayed bilateral relations.   Continued...