If you ask any veteran intelligence professional he will tell you how important and interesting his work is. He will also know how little recognition it receives, because of the veil of secrecy that surrounds it. In the past they may have received satisfaction with a pat on the back and some positive reinforcement from their close family. These days, however, when they get back from a hard day of work they cannot even answer the simple question "What did you do today?"
Very little about the intelligence world is common knowledge, but this article will try to shed light on the details of one of the IAF's most active and important, yet least famous, units.
The ISTAR (Intelligence Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) unit was established in February 1977, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War when the need for a body in the IAF capable of independently producing aerial intelligence became apparent. "The unit's mission is to help achieve the IAF's two main goals: protecting Israel's skies and achieving air superiority", explains Lieutenant Colonel Yanki, a former commander of the unit. "The unit provides the Air Force with the intelligence it needs to achieve these two goals".
The unit is dispersed throughout Israel, and is divided into flights. The ground flights are responsible for collecting and analyzing intelligence relevant to specific areas. The airborne flights are based in central Israel, and collect information using a specially modified version of the Gulfstream G-V (known in Hebrew as the "shavit", meaning "comet"). The final flight is responsible for processing information to produce usable intelligence. "The difference between the sections is the kind of intelligence they deal with, the platforms they use and the theater for which they are responsible", says Major Hadas, the commander of the unit's training flight.
"The airborne flights can operate a wide variety of systems and can work in many different settings", explains First Lieutenant Tomer, mission commander of an airborne flight. "The key difference is that the regional flights only deal with specific topics in one area, whereas our platform allows us to operate anywhere. Of course, we enter the picture when the IAF is required to carry out long range operations, that's our added value".
The unit deals with intelligence collection and with securing the IAF's missions, so it should not come as a surprise to learn that it accompanies hundreds of missions each year. "The unit functions twenty-four hours a day, they're always on alert", according to Lieutenant Colonel Yanki.
"There's always someone manning the assemblies, and the responsibility of sending out warnings rests on their shoulders", explains Major Michael, a commander of a regional flight. "If something happens, he's the one who sounds the alert, and notifies the relevant authorities".
The events that the unit warns of are generally not published in the media, but certainly do occur. "A few years ago, an incident took place during which a Lebanese Cessna Aircraft took off with the intention of crashing into a target in Israel", says Major Michael. "The alert about the incident came from our team. The aircraft did indeed penetrate Israeli airspace, attempting to reach a distant target, but was shot down near Hadera. This is an example of information from the unit assisting in the defense of Israel's skies".
As mentioned earlier, there is a major advantage in an intelligence unit belonging to the Air Force. "We know the Air Force, and we can provide exactly the information it needs", says Major Hadas. "The key requirement is to work within the IAF's timeframe, which is very fast indeed". Major Michael adds: "If a soldier on shift receives information on something anomalous, he needs to alert those responsible for the use of force very quickly, so they can deal with the incident. The training is lengthy because a soldier or officer who needs to send an alert in this kind of timeframe has to be extremely professional. They can't make mistakes because of their insecurity or a lack of knowledge, or make the whole IAF jump because of some nonsense".
The Way Up
It's no easy task to stand guard, operating the equipment that will identify the next threat intending to harm the State of Israel. As such, very few are accepted to the unit, and even fewer complete the exhausting training. "Only a select group of people reach the unit", according to Lieutenant Colonel Yanki. "It's a limited group of people who are difficult to locate, because of our very demanding requirements - they need to be high quality people with very specific character traits". Some of the team come from other elite units, while others are placed there before their enlistment or immediately afterwards.
After successfully completing the test and receiving security clearance, they are accepted into the unit. Those who operate the intelligence equipment on board the aircraft, both male and female, must also pass a medical exam: "The medicals are carried out to ensure that those who operate the equipment in the aircraft are fit for an airborne role", explains Corporal Maayan, an airborne operator. "You need to be fit to fly, just like for all other airborne roles in the Air Force".
Women have not always been part of the airborne crew. "Despite the fact that there were always girls in the ground teams, they only joined airborne flights a few years ago", says First Lieutenant Moran, the first female operational mission commander in the airborne flight. "Of course, today a qualified female soldier would participate in the same operations that a qualified male soldier would, without consideration of the distance from Israel or whether or not there is a state of emergency".
The length of the training in the unit varies from eight months to one year, and in general depends on the pace of the soldier being trained. "Before they reach the flight, they undergo a short introductory course in the Air Force's training base", says First Lieutenant Ella, an officer in the unit. "At the start of their training in the flight every soldier receives a tutor, and they start to learn independently. Some of the training is theoretical, primarily background material on every aspect of the area they are operating in. The remainder is practical: carrying out shifts alongside a qualified NCO".
"After enlisting, going through basic training and the unit's basic course, they reach our flight", explains Second Lieutenant Assaf, of the airborne squadron. "Our training is a little longer than the ground-flights' training; it lasts a year. At first they learn the technical and intelligence foundations, and later reach more practical training in a simulated environment. Finally, they go on real flights, learning in stages until they qualify".
The training is considered to be one of the hardest, if not the hardest, parts of the service of the unit's operators and officers. "The length of the training, its intensity and the sheer volume of material make it a very difficult time", explains Lieutenant Colonel Yanki. "You need to learn a lot by heart. The role requires sending real time alerts, so it is very demanding".
During the training the soldiers learn how to cope with complicated events that unfold over a matter of minutes, and that place great responsibility on their shoulders. "A training period of more than eight months in the unit is no small matter", says Major Michael. "A part of its importance is mental training: On the operational shifts they take part in towards the end of the training and in the earlier, simulated stages, the soldiers find themselves facing complicated decisions that require them to make a decision. We teach them how to do it, and test them again and again. We don't expect them to be born with the ability".
A Closed-Book Flight
In addition to their operational shifts, every soldier and officer of the unit carries out an additional role. "Our NCOs work one shift a day, and the rest of the time they carry out various non-operational roles", explains Sergeant Chen, a qualified operator in one of the flights. "There are various tasks that are not directly connected to operational activity, such as training, technical roles, handling and training reservists and so on. Every NCO takes part in one of these tasks, and is responsible for training at least one soldier who is in the process of qualifying".
For those serving in the unit, there is no typical day. "Our timetable is definitely not fixed", says First Lieutenant Tomer. "Beyond the operational sorties, we are busy putting together intelligent reports, writing briefings, guiding trainees, meeting officials from other units, discussing, investigating and so on. Our flight is small and varied, so every day includes everything".
The degree of responsibility placed on the ISTAR soldiers is considered amongst the highest in the Air Force, and even in the IDF as a whole. "All of our soldiers are individually chosen, and go through a long process before they receive permission to work in an operational environment", says First Lieutenant Moran. "I view the level of professionalism of the soldiers, and the variety of subjects they deal with as exceptional, in a positive way, of course".
To be a young corporal with such weighty responsibilities can sometimes be stressful. "On the missions themselves, the challenge is that everything happens at once", say First Lieutenant Ron, mission commander in the airborne flight. "We need to be attentive and alert for a long period of time, and to divide our attention between many different factors, all in a short space of time. If we're there at the moment of truth, we can't afford to wait a few minutes or a few hours, or it will no longer be relevant. We don't have the privilege of referring to a book or to spend time consulting, so the operators need to be very professional and to know how to respond at the moment of truth". Sergeant Hagai, an airborne operator, adds: "It's not just the shortage of time that makes it complicated, it's also the small teams. There's just not much time to discuss any particular issue. The great responsibility comes from the fact that once you've completed your training, your ideas are very significant, and your opinions are granted as much weight as the opinions of everyone else in the flight. They can become a determining factor at key moments".
Despite its difficult moments and the work that is usually not simple, it's hard to find a soldier who is not satisfied in the unit. "The long and exhausting training, and the long shifts which wear you down, are both dwarfed by the importance of the role, and the pleasure we get from it", says operator Sergeant Yigal.
Even the Pilot Doesn't Know
The flight's staff talks about the moments when the sense of mission and self-satisfaction transcend the day-to-day difficulties: "There are moments like this, primarily after important intelligence discoveries for which we are responsible", explains First Lieutenant Moran. "In general, it's usually as we approach our landing that we begin to understand just how useful the activities we took part in were, and it truly gives us the feeling that we were part of something big and important".
Sergeant Yahel, airborne operator, adds: "As is fitting in an intelligence matter, we only get credit behind the scenes. We make do with our own personal feelings of satisfaction and the discussions amongst us. Even the pilot in the cockpit doesn't always know we are there: he receives the mission and is promised that it will be OK, but sometimes he does not know who is watching over him".
The feelings of satisfaction, the way of life found in the unit and the personal contribution from every soldier are what makes ISTAR a unit with sky-high motivation. "The fact is that that satisfaction from serving in the unit grows every day, and the greatest proof is the percentage of soldiers who want to go on to become officers, even though it means that they will need to sign on for two or three years of extra service. One could think that after the long and difficult training period, the soldiers would want to be discharged as soon as possible, but the opposite is true: they want to stay longer and contribute more".
Even after their discharge, during reserve duty the soldiers remain connected to the unit. "They join the unit out of interest, stay for the way of life and their good friends and continue out of love for the role", says Sergeant Chen. "The reservists love this place, and feel that the role remains with them, so they insist on coming back every so often". First Lieutenant Moran adds: "The reservists are here frequently, and when they hear about an unusual operation on the news they all get in contact to say they've already packed their bags and ask if they need to come and fly".
The roles performed by those in the unit is not simple, and so to join, soldiers are expected to demonstrate a number of qualities: high intelligence, reliability, technical abilities, the ability to work under pressure, self confidence and assertiveness, motivation, the desire to learn and above all, the ability to work with people. "This is a unit for soldiers with an open mind, looking to grow", says First Lieutenant Moran. "It's appropriate for those who want to carry out an important role, no matter what their rank, and who want to give of themselves in a rewarding, challenging and mentally taxing position".