27 July 2010
An Israeli Air Force unmanned plane flies over central Israel (file photo)
Some German pilots that are part of NATO operations in Afghanistan are in Israel for training on special reconnaissance drones. The Jewish state's expertise is helping to train the Germans to protect ground troops and convoys in Afghanistan.
At Israel's Ein Shemer air base, a Heron drone takes off for a training mission. But this propeller-driven aircraft is bright white with a black iron cross and the red, yellow, and black flag of the German Luftwaffe on its side. Inside a non-descript metal building, a German pilot controls the craft, which carries high-resolution cameras and other equipment.
Germany has the third-largest NATO contingent in Afghanistan - 4,300 personnel. The Germans ordered a small fleet of the Heron drones from Israel Aerospace Industries to help prevent civilian casualties and friendly-fire incidents in the rugged Afghan terrain.
One of the pilots in training - identified as Major C to preserve military secrecy - says having the drones in Afghanistan will be invaluable.
"It's a huge support because then we can finally do intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance right over the battlefields in real life, so we support the troops and we can support convoys driving around in real time," said Major C.
Inside the training building, pilots and instructors sit behind controls and computer screens. A map and the view from the drone's cameras are displayed in front of each pilot. German pilot Major T used to fly a Tornado plane in Afghanistan. He says the drones could have a huge impact.
"So you know in Afghanistan it's really hard to compare the good guys from the bad guys," said Major T. "So you have to surveil them a long time until you can say 'okay, maybe he's kind of a suspicious person, so maybe we should investigate it a longer time or not.' So that's the main reason why we have the Heron there."
Israel is one of the pioneers of combat drones, having used the remote-controlled aircraft in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. The United States, Canada, France, Australia and Spain also use drones in Afghanistan.
But Israeli experts training German pilots at an airbase that Britain's RAF used to fight the Germans in World War II is an historical irony not lost on Tomer Koriat, the deputy director of the training project. Koriat says his team has a great deal of respect for their German students.
"How do I feel about this issue, us supporting the Germans? From the beginning of the project till today all of us have learned that today we are talking about another Germany than what we used to know," said Koriat.
Each of the Heron drones costs about $10 million, depending on how it is equipped. Because Afghanistan is an Islamic republic, Israeli mechanics will not be able to provide maintenance. A German partner - Rheinmetall Defence - will maintain the aircraft once they are deployed.