Dec. 14, 2016
In 1968, Israeli military intelligence suspected that Egypt was already making preparations for its next war on the Jewish state. But monitoring these preparations—many of which took place just a few hundred yards from the border—required a risky covert operation. Shabtai Brill, a senior intelligence officer at the time, felt there had to be a better way. Inspired by a newsreel he had seen about an American boy who had received a miniature remote-control airplane as a bar-mitzvah present, he arrived at the idea behind drone warfare. Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot write:
Brill . . . went to air-force headquarters, snooped around, and discovered Shlomo Barak, an officer who spent his weekends flying remote-control airplanes. He was one of a handful of people in Israel at the time who had the necessary experience for what Brill had in mind.
Brill tried to get the air force to assume responsibility for the idea. He was unsuccessful. “Remote-control planes are toys, and we have no use for them,” officers from the air force’s technology branch told Brill. . . .
Later that week, [Brill and his commanding officer, Avraham Arnan] met at a small airstrip outside Tel Aviv for a flight demonstration. Barak piloted the remote-control plane, did some maneuvers, a flip or two, and landed it flawlessly. Arnan liked the idea but wanted to know what it would cost. Brill didn’t know and, so, together with Barak, he compiled a list: three airplanes, six remote controls, five engines, a few spare tires, and propellers. The grand total: $850.
Arnan approved the budget, and a member of Israel’s defense delegation in New York went to a Manhattan toy store, purchased the equipment, and sent it back to Israel in the embassy’s diplomatic pouch. . . . After their safe arrival in Israel, the planes were brought to the Intelligence Directorate’s technological team for further development. They were fitted with 35-millimeter German-made cameras with timers programmed to take pictures automatically every ten seconds.
Brill and Arnan then had the planes go up against IDF anti-aircraft batteries, which proved unable to hit a target so small. Soon they were flying reconnaissance missions over Egypt and returning with photographs of Egyptian positions far more detailed than anything human spies could deliver. But as efforts to build more sophisticated drones stalled, the IDF brass shut down the program. Only after the Yom Kippur War was Brill able to convince his superiors that the Egyptian invasion could have been properly anticipated had unmanned surveillance continued.
Thereafter, Israel began developing ever more sophisticated drones, using them against Syrian artillery in Lebanon, underground rocket-launchers in Gaza, and Iranian arms smugglers in Sudan. Sharing these new weapons with the U.S. initiated the current era of Israeli-American cooperation in the development of military technology.