Major (in reserve) Yoav of the EITAN unit quietly moans. “This situation has been like that for way too long”, he says. “It splits the entire country”. Major (in reserve) Yoav, a citizen employed by the IDF sits in his little office. The “Gilad Shalit” walk is about to commence, and the question of at what cost Israeli soldiers should be released from captivity is relevant more than ever. It has always been the goal of terrorist organizations to kidnap Israeli soldiers, dead or alive. History shows that the State of Israel has gone great lengths to retrieve its soldiers, even if it is for burial purposes only.
Dozens of maps, work plans, and research papers are scattered on Yoav’s desk. A little picture of Guy Hever, a soldier missing since 1997 is pinned to the corkboard on the wall. “We are supposed to respond as fast as possible once a soldier is determined missing, be in an abduction or in a battle field. We need to find and bring back the soldier”, he says. “Locating the soldier right away prevents a family, national, and international crisis down the road”. In a new course, which commenced several months ago, UAV operators at IAF learned how to cooperate with EITAN, and how to serve as their eyes in the skies over enemy’s territory, in order to disable the next attempt of abduction.
It all began with two research papers written by major (in reserve) Yoav, together with major (in reserve) Chen, a UAV operator at “The First UAV” squadron. Over the years Chen has become a specialist in tracing missing persons using the UAV. Over the years Chen helped to solve many cases, and when he completed his military duty, the squadron’s Commander Lieut. Col. Zviki announced that “a major source of knowledge is lost”.
Yoav and Chen were assisted by Police Superintendent Hagai Wax in writing the two papers: “Analyzing Data from Open Crime Scenes, Which Points to Characteristics of Burial Sites”, published in 2004, and “Analyzing Crime Scene Findings which Point To Burial Sites Using UAV’s And Its Cameras”, published in 2006. In simple words: how to locate fresh burial sites, or missing people using UAVs. “The message these papers convey is simple: let’s use existing technology in the best way possible, to trace and locate missing persons”, explains Yoav. “EITAN’s task is clear: to give a 12 digit location coordinates, and point to the place where a missing person is, dead or alive. At the very least, we should be able to narrow the search territory. We achieve this objective by analyzing the terrain, speak to soldiers, and other tools. The UAV enables us to explore enemy’s territory. It’s on-line missing person’s search. Live. It allows us to traverse through places we would not be able to without the UAV".
Major (in reserve) Yoav describes a particular finding that came out of the two papers: “when you bury someone, a mound (a small heap) is created. Later, that mound turns into a depression of a very particular shape, which can be spotted. In addition, we learned that when someone digs a grave, the soil is turned over and seeds are mixed in. The mound holds a greater amount of moisture. The moisture and the mixed seed result in a unique effect: the burial site features vegetation different from the surrounding natural habitat. These findings helped us to locate Dana Benet".
Dana Benet was murdered in 2003, and found only in 2009, after years of searching. Chen confirms that the police and EITAN employed special techniques based on the research findings. Even though no UAVs were deployed, Dana’s body would never be found without these findings. “The UAV is not the point. What matters is the thermal camera it has on board (a camera that “sees” one’s body heat), and it’s superior resolution and quality”, says Chen. “Thermal techniques allow for further analysis of the terrain. We can even mark suspicious areas for further investigation”. “It’s a whole science, with an array of little details that can change in a spur of a moment”, says Major Oz, an operator at “The First UAV” squadron. “You have to know what everything looks like through a thermal camera, how time of the day and the season affect it, what worms up faster. Knowing all that enables you to properly map the terrain and locate the missing person”. It should be mentioned that so far, UAVs were used only in searching for soldiers who were killed on enemy’s territory, and not missing persons who are still alive. “We assume that if the soldier is alive, he is kept indoors, and that’s a task for the intelligence units and a completely different and long-term business”, explains Chen. “Our focus here is on getting to the soldier before the terrorists do”.
A training course for locating missing persons
Chen’s departure from military created a need to transfer the existing knowledge to other operators at the squadron. “This is not the type of missions we do on a daily basis, and is very different than the usual ‘locate the rocket launcher’ assignments”, says major (in reserve) Meir. “Fortunately, this doesn’t happen very often, and when it does we are glad ‘to help out’. The idea to formulate a whole training course came up upon realizing that there is a significant knowledge gap in this area".
Major (in reserve) Meir, and Major Oz were assigned to build the two-and-a-half day course. It included several members of the squadron, as well as people from EITAN. At the end of the course, an aerial workshop was conducted: an area in Israel was selected to simulate a battle field. Dead animals were buried in the area, and the operators were asked to identify the burial sites.
“There are several anticipated missing person’s scenarios: hikers lost in the desert, a pilot ejects from a plane, a kidnapping by terrorists, or casualties on the battle field”, describes Major Oz. “One of the goals of this course, is to establish a protocol which can be followed at any of these scenarios. Naturally, nothing compares to years of experience, but at least it gives us a good head start on any incident”.
A needle in a hay-stack
“We are the eyes of EITAN”, says Major (in reserve) Meir. “To search for a missing person in enemy’s territory is like to search for a needle in a hay-stack. The search area must be narrowed down as much as possible, otherwise it will be very hard to scan it properly. For example, if an APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) was to be hit on the battle field, and you are assigned to locate the casualties: you can map where the “hot spots” were before and after the explosion, and by doing so to mark off a particular sector, to which the ground forces will then go in, to look for casualties”.
The APC example provided by Major Yoav is actually a true story. On May 11th, 2004, an IDF APC was hit by a side road bomb at the Gaza Strip. Six soldiers were killed. “I was flying above that neighbourhood”, recalls Major Chen, “when all of a sudden I spotted a large explosion. I wasn’t sure what it was, and no one said anything on the radio at first. Nevertheless, I began mapping the “hot spots” right away. There were many of them, but I could not tell what they were: I had no idea that an APC exploded. Only several hours later, Major Yoav called me and told me what happened. When reports of missing soldiers came in, we cross referenced the maps I prepared and marked the areas where we calculated they should be".
Another incident where Chen had to map “hot spots” has to do with the soldier Majdi Halabi. Halabi is an Israeli soldier, who was last seen in the area of Dalyat-El-Carmel in 2005. “A few weeks after he disappeared, we got some intelligence on his possible whereabouts”, carefully tells Chen, aware of how sensitive the issue of missing soldiers is. “We’ve conducted a very detailed search inside Israeli territory. We’ve identified 12 suspicious locations. The next day, a ground force checked them all out, mostly locating dead animals, but not the missing soldier".
In another case, Chen and Yoav assisted in the search for Master Sergeant Keren Tendler, who was killed at a helicopter crash during the Second Lebanon War. Keren was an airborne mechanic. Her helicopter was hit by a Hezbollah missile, and her body could not be located in the first hours following the crash. In this case, it was the not-finding-anything by the UAVs that brought to a quick location of her body: Chen and Yoav were brought in the middle of the night to conduct the search. For many hours they combed the area, analyzed the flight path of the helicopter, and even made complex physical calculations of probabilities on where her body might be. “Inch by inch, we combed the entire area”, says Chen. “We’ve identified six possible locations. In other words, we ruled out any other possible location. Ground forces arrived to each of the six spots, and found nothing. At that point, we issued a statement that her body must be inside the helicopter itself. That’s where she was found. From an operational point of view, we were successful at quickly identifying her whereabouts".
“I burst on tears”
The control-trailer of the UAVs is like a bubble. Once the operators go in, they disconnect from the outer world, and from that moment and on it's just them, the UAV and the ground forces. You cannot allow emotions to interrupt in your work, especially when searching for missing persons. Easier said than done; it is one thing to search for rocket launch pads but, it is a completely different story to search for the body of a missing soldier.
“At the Second Lebanon War Yoav and I were called in to search for the body of a Commando soldier”, recalls Chen. “It was a difficult task, and we were exhausted following a week of hard work. At the station, we felt like the isolation imposed a great emotional detachment on us. After we found him, I hurried home to catch a few hours of sleep before going back the next morning. Only when I returned, I burst in tears. I didn’t feel anything specific but I realized that things built up inside of me. Only several months later, I realized the level of detachment that day required of me".
Major (in reserve) Meir: “when we searched for Keren Tendler, I sat with Yoav and Chen at the trailer. I knew at that time, that one of the other soldiers who were killed at the crash was Daniel Gomes, from my town. I knew him. Emotionally, it was very hard".
To strengthen the cooperation
It would appear that the cooperation between the squadron and EITAN is very strong, with clear guidelines on who does what in case of an emergency. Actually, the reality is somewhat different. Up until now, the entire cooperation was based on the personal relationship that formed between Chen and Yoav. “One of the things we are working on right now is the development of a clear protocol, which will take the cooperation beyond personal relationships”, tells Major Oz. “We would like an ongoing communication to be established between us and the people at EITAN. The course depicted this communication protocol, so everyone knows what to expect during an emergency, and what the procedure is. We want to strengthen the cooperation between our units.
“The cooperation today is really between Chen and me”, says Yoav. “We really want more guys from the squadron to develop deeper understanding of this field, hence the training course. Basically, our goal is to set up an emergency button. Once we press it, a red light goes of at the squadron, and they come to our help without personal connections".
Lately the UAVs of the “First UAV” squadron almost participated at a search of a missing person inside Israeli territory. The police has its own helicopters with as advanced cameras as the squadron. But this time, special circumstances called for the UAVs to be deployed. In December 2009 an eight year old child, Nizan Cohen, was lost in the mountains of Jerusalem. “We feared that the loud noise of the helicopters will scare and prompt him to hide, so it was decided that it is better to deploy the quiet UAVs”, recalls Chen. “When we were already at the take off stages, the boy was found”. Chen adds that a UAV owned by a private company assisted the police in search for another missing person inside Israel.
“The cooperation with the police is something that we are working on”, tells Major Oz. “We are working towards establishing a communication channel, and enabling future cooperation”.
The cooperation between EITAN and the squadron under the new protocol was first tested about a month ago, when a soldier went missing during elite-force training. The soldier eventually found, but the new model had its first opportunity to shine.
From a different angle
The operators report that beyond the knowledge of how to handle missing-persons emergencies, the special course raises their level of professionalism, as they acquire new skills in analyzing aerial images. Chen brings a real-life example: “it’s like that 3-D picture you need to look at in a special way to see them. Imagine staring at them every day without knowing about the right way to do it, and then someone comes one day and reveals the magical image hiding inside. You realize that there is new information where you did not know it exists. This is the case here: we taught the operators how to retrieve more information from the images they see. This is a significant boost to their abilities, and level of professionalism". While the course is being taken very seriously, and is planned to take place twice a year, everyone hopes that the skills learned will need not to be applied in the future.