IDF’s “Star” Drone Squadron: Eliminating Any Threat That Disrupts the Gaza Maneuver

The squadron’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel O. in a special conversation with Israel Defense: "We conducted mutual learning with the combat force regarding the targets and objectives of the warfare”

Photo credit: Israeli Air Force magazine

On Saturday morning, October 7th, the holiday of Simchat Torah, Lieutenant Colonel O was at his home. Very quickly, he arrived at the airbase in Palmachim for takeoffs and initial attacks. Lieutenant Colonel O calls this stage the suppression phase. "We helped regain control of our forces in the Israeli communities surrounding the Gaza Strip.” Then, he moved on to planning the maneuvering phase.

Lt. Col. O commands the 166 Squadron, which comprises Hermes 900 UAVs (the “Star”), manufactured by Elbit Systems. The “Star” is the second largest unmanned aircraft in the Air Force after the "Eitan," roughly equivalent in size to the Heron-1 “Shoval”. Both the latter UAVs are products of IAI (Israel Aerospace Industries). Another participant in the array is the "Zik" - the Hermes 450, also manufactured by Elbit Systems.

High-quality intelligence

Since October 7th until today, Squadron 166, the 166 Squadron, also known as the Fire Birds Squadron, has been participating in combat operations in Gaza. Regular and reserve personnel, as well as female counterparts, are involved in all professions within the squadron.fגדע.

The squadron commander mentioned an attack this week directly targeting the hospital in Khan Yunis. The unprecedented integration of unmanned aircraft in combat operations with ground forces is at a level unseen in previous wars, and according to Lt. Col. O, "This is the story of this war."

Squadron 166 has two main missions: intelligence gathering and attack. Intelligence gathering is classified – but clearly, a large aircraft capable of staying in the air for dozens of hours, equipped with an array of sensors, can provide significant, high-quality intelligence.

The squadron launches a “Star,” sometimes more than one, which remains airborne for an extended period above a designated area. There's a continuous sequence of activity, and due to its size and equipment, it gathers intelligence in both quantity and quality, not just from a specific limited vantage point but from a broad area.

"The big story," in the words of the squadron commander, “Is the integration between the aircraft and its operators with the intelligence and attack consumers – the commanders in the field, the maneuvering forces.” During the current Swords of Iron War, the 166 Squadron has been assigned to the IDF’s 98th Division.  

In a special conversation with Israel Defense, Lt. Col. O says that “We conducted mutual learning of the war's objectives, targets, and goals with the maneuvering force, from the division commander down to the combat soldiers fighting on the ground. Our squadron personnel went down to the brigades, brigade representatives came to us, and they entered the command post of the squadron, thus we mutually learned from each other.

“"I met with the brigade commander, and a connection between the officers of the maneuvering forces and the leaders and operators in the ‘Star’ squadron was established. It's truly an intimacy of combat, and from what I see since the beginning of the fighting, the method is working."

A vast target bank

Due to the extensive deployment of the "Zik" UAV, commanders in the ground forces often refer to any UAV by the name "Zik." Thus, it's common to hear the sentence that Lt. Col. O has heard many times from high-ranking officers and commanders in the maneuvering forces: "I feel secure when there's a 'Zik' above me. I need a 'Zik' above me at all times.”

The "Star" UAV attacks a wide range of targets. It's a weapon that can neutralize any threat hindering the maneuver. It contributes to the rapid advancement of the force, by destroying or at least delaying the enemy, thus promoting the maneuver. The squadron commander says that in this war, the squadron launches a large number of UAVs that enable 24/7 operations. Upgrades were installed by the defense industries allowing combat in winter, which is especially rainy this year.

At the core of Squadron 166 are the attack teams. Each team comprises three members: Number 1 is the team leader, the operational leader. Number 2 is the operator who launches the drone, and Number 3 is responsible for preparing the intelligence received from the drone for the end users on the ground.

The team collects information from the UAV, analyzes the findings, and makes decisions. Depending on the mission, they decide to send one or more aircraft to support the ground combatants. "The significant change in air-ground cooperation in this war is dramatic, and the operational value of the method is immense. The key is fighting together,” says Lt. Col. O.

“I know the battlefield, accompany the fighters, know the battle plan, know the commanders, and have close ties to the combatants, who are the end-users of the UAVs for reconnaissance and attack. We are familiar with the front-line attack units. The brigade commander knows he has an asset above his head that will provide them with information and strike if necessary.

“Just as the battalion commander knows how to operate artillery, today he knows how to operate UAVs. We have reached a point where we are an integral part of the force, and this is a significant leap. In the squadron, within the UAV system, and throughout the Air Force, we have grown in terms of the quantity of force, expanded the types of targets we attack, and increased the intelligence level of the system.

Commander O. is 36 years old, and his entire Air Force career has been within the UAV array. He requests to emphasize the high levels of professionalism and readiness of the many reservists serving in the squadron, some of whom have been serving since October 7th until today. Women fulfill vital positions such as operators, interrogation teams, simulator instructors, and more.

To conclude, I asked Lt. Col. O. what is his professional ambition. His reply? “To be constantly over the battlefield.”

Join us tomorrow (Thursday) at UVID Dronetech. Israel's largest drone/UAV event. For additional information please visit our website 

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