“Commentators . . . say that Russia overslept the UAV revolution, that Russian generals did not prepare the army for such a massive use of drones. . . . But we weren’t the only ones sleeping. The whole world fell asleep. All military scientific organizations, academies and experts talked about the need to build ever more powerful, long-range drones. . . . But in Ukraine . . . the most useful drone is a trifle—quadcopters.”

Comments from pro-Kremlin Telegram channel

In a short time, scholars, practitioners, and astute spectators have pivoted from perceiving small drones as hobbyists’ toys to recognizing them as a crucial for modern ground warfare. Ukraine’s large-scale use of commercial unmanned aircraft systems in its war against Russia, in particular, has offered compelling evidence of this new reality. Russia has rebuffed criticism of its initial oversight of tactical drones and redoubled its efforts to develop acquisition pathways. Militaries across the world, including in China, have taken note.

The United States is no exception. Recently, the United States Army announced plans to provide small drones to infantry units for experimentation. The route toward effective integration of tactical unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into combat formation is not linear, however. Several integration models and methods of use exist along multiple forking paths. Deciding among them can be daunting and each of those decisions can make future decisions path dependent. While most eyes have been on Ukraine and Russia, there is another state whose extensive experience with small UAS holds important lessons: Israel.

Of course, Israel’s conduct of its military campaign in Gaza has divided observers and produced no shortage of international criticism, not least because of the number of civilians who have been killed or wounded. But the enhanced situational awareness that follows from integrating small UAS into combat operations makes these tools among the most effective in limiting collateral damage and civilian casualties. That makes a careful study of the Israeli model instructive. That model rests on four fundaments:

  1. Existing knowledge and expertise in the development, integration, and deployment of larger drones used for objectives principally at the strategic level.
  2. Specialized field intelligence units that bridge the gap for infantry units, offering them personal eyes in the sky.
  3. Existing knowledge and expertise in tactical drone use by special operations units.
  4. The development of a specialized unit that organically used and tested all types of drones and derived knowledge to diffuse to other units.

Drawing on those pillars, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been able to rapidly adjust and expand the deployment and use of tactical drones in the Gaza conflict, providing a precedent for other militaries operating in a variety of combat environments.

Israel’s Awakening to Small UAS

Israel was a pioneer of modern drone technology and has since stayed at the forefront of military drone use. When the IDF debuted drones in the 1980s, they were limited to a handful of advanced platforms operated by air force or intelligence units, restricting access and information to few people at strategic levels. This persisted until the 2000s with the introduction of the Skylark, a smaller reconnaissance drone that works in close support and under the command of ground units. Even then, however, at the tactical level, drones were reserved for special operations forces that developed in-house capabilities. Thus, the democratization of tactical airpower did not reach the rank and file until recently, with the war in Gaza. One commentator notes that observations made even five years ago seem irrelevant given the momentum of technological and doctrinal development. Now, “drones proliferate like a menagerie of animals at all levels of the army,” including models like the Lanius (shrike), Maoz (firefly), Ninox (viper), Wolverine, and Rhino.

The unique challenges of this war—high-intensity fighting in a mixture of civilian-saturated urban and subterranean environments, amid information operations aimed at delegitimizing any Israeli military action—required fast solutions. For the versatility they offer, tactical drones were rapidly introduced into fighting units in creative ways. They became an extension of platoon-level soldiers, deployed to see beyond the next corner in the urban jungle, to explore a subterranean complex, to offer cover fire from an unexpected angle, to break a window, or to be used as guided missiles.

The deployment of reservists into battle also introduced eclectic and informal innovations with hobbyist and commercial drones. For instance, the 55th Paratroopers Brigade bought over a hundred commercial drones to generate unit-level tactical UAS capabilities. As the campaign progressed, tactics changed. Units began using small drones for initial screening before forces advanced, to search for improvised explosive devices, to identify enemy positions, and to instantly screen buildings or suspicious infrastructure. Upon identifying terrorists, the drones have been used to direct fire or in some cases to communicate with those who want to surrender. The brigade even uses drone mapping and analysis software to update offensive and defensive battle plans as terrain quickly changes amid destruction, both engineered and collateral. Successful initiatives from below have acted as a proof of concept for the utility of these platforms, inviting the military to provide standardized solutions.

While the war’s exigencies and bottom-up momentum accelerated the process, the IDF had a preexisting body of knowledge and expertise on tactical drones. Israel had been running pilot programs to test applications of small UAS. The onset of the Hamas-Israel war accelerated many into action. Suddenly, existentially exposed to urban and subterranean warfare, experimental units and approaches have been tested by fire, then spread like wildfire.

The peak of tactical UAS experimentation and integration in Israel originated in its Refaim (Ghosts) unit—established as what the IDF referred to as a multidimensional unit—well before the war. IDF units are generally more siloed in the capabilities they field than other militaries with combined arms formations. For instance, armored units do not possess organic infantry or close air support capabilities, and forces have had difficulties with coordination and communication in complex operations. The ghosts are unique in that they meld functions into a single dexterous unit. Furthermore, they receive new gadgets to field test and refine in a bottom-up acquisition approach.

The Ghost unit innovated to integrate small UAS into more autonomous ground forces, enabling them to precisely close the circle on enemy combatants—progressing from identification to targeting, authorization, and elimination—with drones rather than relying on other units. This approach has quickly spread to the rest of the army during the Gaza campaign. This integration of small UAS into ground units grants commanders a fuller, more detailed picture of the battlefield. The ghost unit’s elements have also been referred to as drone bands since the unit operates packs of reconnaissance and attack UAS. The swift movement from enemy identification to fire has also earned them the moniker of exposure-attack units.

Multiuse Applications

As the war in Gaza wages on, the IDF has increasingly integrated tactical drones into a broader variety of operations and for a wide set of purposes. Exploring some of the primary functions of the IDF’s small UAS offers lessons for other militaries.

Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance

The most common use of small UAS in most combat settings is for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). Israel is no exception, exploiting the vertically elevated vantage point to enrich field commanders’ information. For instance, all ground forces were equipped with Maoz drones, which debuted operationally a month before the Hamas-Israel war, during the Jenin refugee camp raid. Although technically a loitering munition, the distinction between these and ISR drones is narrowing as weaponized platforms are equipped with cameras and other sensors and are easily used during operations solely as reconnaissance platforms.

Humanitarian Applications

Beyond their role during planning and mission execution phases, Israel also uses UAS in the aftermath of operations to verify the number and identity of targets neutralized. This is meaningful for operational metrics, but also for transparency and reporting on human rights and the laws of armed conflict. In the current war—characterized as it is by urban terrain, humanitarian concerns, and information warfare regarding numbers of civilian and combatant casualties—this capability is crucial. Further, the IDF flew small drones with speakers announcing and urging civilians to evacuate in advance of the invasion of Hamad City, demonstrating another clever function.

Limiting Risk

Another asset is that drones improve unit survivability, a tall order in urban and other confined environments. An ad for the Xtender shows a kitted-out team member donning a visor, activating a drone, and leading the unit through a scenario in a building complex concealing hostiles. Ironically, it ends with the punchline “First soldier into battle.” Mini-UAS are especially useful in built-up and booby-trapped environments, exact markers of the Hamas-Israel conflict. Able to conduct ISR in tight quarters, map ahead, detect and classify objects like weapons stations, determine whether humans are armed, and clear obstacles and hazards, small drones have faced and defused several traps and ambushes to date.

Urban and Subterranean Warfare

Fighting in Gaza is taking place primarily in cities and tunnels. These operating environments are considerably complex, congested, and contested. Cities provide exceptional cover for embedded fighters, not to mention the remaining civilian population that can make discrimination a challenge. Tunnel fighting is highly hazardous with limited vision, constrained and canalized movement, and traps. Since several kit components do not function underground—navigation devices, imaging tools, and others—it has been analogized to underwater fighting.

The IDF tried many methods to explore, demine, and decommission the “Gaza metro,” composed of five hundred kilometers of tunnels. Between the Oketz dog units, Samur subterranean commandoes, and Yahalom team of combat engineers, they quickly learned that small quadcopters were the cheapest and most effective. Some have shrouded rotors to prevent damage from contact with walls, enabling them to fit through tight spaces.

Drones can also function as communication relays in the signal-degraded underground or in GPS-scrambled cities. Furthermore, in urban theaters UAS like the Xtender or Wolverine, a micro-drone with robotic arm and cyber capabilities, can carry through-the-wall life-detection radar. They can also attach charges to break down doors or grab and remove hazards like explosives, and the Maoz can home in on, keep pace with, and strike terrorists even in moving vehicles.

Cyber Discrimination

Although it is unclear how operational they are currently, the IDF debuted drone-cyber capabilities at a live-fire exercise in 2022. Mimicking cell towers, a formation of quadcopters hovers over buildings and tricks phones into connecting and downloading a software payload. This would allow soldiers and officers to quickly determine whether known combatants are inside. In irregular warfare, where terrorists and combatants intentionally blend into a surrounding population, this capability will improve discrimination and decrease unintended civilian casualties. Of course, even if this capacity is still emerging, forces can fly small ISR UAS into terrorist strongholds to detect targets.

Challenges and Prescriptions

In addition to illustrating the specific missions small UAS can enhance, an examination of Israel’s model of UAS development and employment also reveals challenges to integrating drones into combat formations—and points toward ways to overcome them.

Defense Industrial Base

Although the lowest tier of small UAS in Israel includes commercial off-the-shelf models, the IDF has cracked down on their use in Gaza and made efforts to standardize deployed platforms. Standardization elongates lifespans by minimizing mistakes in the heat of battle and facilitates transferability and cross-unit collaboration. Purely commercial models are sufficient and appropriate for some tasks—perhaps for border patrol or infrastructure security. For others that require more reliable, ruggedized performance and depend on a secure datalink, commercial models must undergo proprietary or aftermarket conversions.

Consequently, the first challenge is to mobilize the defense industrial base to accommodate these solutions at scale and at an acceptable cost. Israel has a more vibrant base than many Western nations, with the government cooperating with startups, ordering small-scale pilot projects, and providing timely and pointed feedback. Even under these conditions, though, establishing an innovative defense startup is difficult. The market is already crowded with large, established firms and the industry is highly regulated, complex, expensive, and often slow. Defense acquisition pathways must be reformed to allow for smaller, nimbler companies to participate. Furthermore, to maintain a stock of more expendable drones, those pathways must be shorter and faster than routes for exquisite military technology.


Taking the brunt of scouting and frontline dangers, the survivability of small UAS will be low in order to maximize soldier survivability. Reportedly, Ukraine loses approximately ten thousand drones per month due to their dense deployment in the war. The per-unit price, including any military upgrades or modular packages, must not be unsustainable. Israeli reservists acquired three robot dogs from Ghost Robotics using donated funds at the start of the Hamas-Israel war to explore tunnels and perform border security. Why only three? The price tag of $130,000 per unit becomes prohibitive at any larger scale. In addition to purchase price sustainability, maintenance costs for mechanical wear must also not undermine a UAS program. The IDF’s Panda bulldozers—an unmanned variant of the Caterpillar D9 bulldozers—which demolish barriers in built-up areas, are sparingly allocated for this very reason.


While leveraging the power of small UAS wielded by ground forces, militaries must simultaneously prepare for adversaries making similar moves. Counter-UAS solutions, therefore, should be assimilated into units with the same urgency. In addition, states must identify ways to distinguish ally, enemy, and civilian drones in an increasingly dense littoral airspace. Israel’s initial solution has been to compel civilian drones to be registered and operate remote identification in real time. Although it is less clear how it was accomplished, Israel also appears to have degraded Hamas drone attacks, perhaps deploying disrupters, since the start of the war.


One challenge Israeli soldiers have encountered in Gaza is simply how to charge its drones in theater. Small UAS might be cheaper and more plentiful than larger UAS, but they typically have less endurance, and there is a limit to how many batteries soldiers can carry on their backs. When units must stay in a combat zone, they have to port the energy source along with them. Observing voltage gaps between tactical drones and tanks or transport vehicles, an IDF unit tasked to find a fix developed energy packages to taper electricity to a relevant voltage. Using commercial generators and 3D-printed cables, this not only served as a solution but doubled the charging rate. This brigade went on to develop waterproofing, pocket chargers, and rollable solar panels to add to Israel’s battery repertoire.

Integrating tactical UAS into ground forces will not happen easily or overnight. It requires resource allocation, a change in doctrine, new and updated training, and fresh perspectives in the field. While case studies like Ukraine, Russia, and Israel are instructive, each nation must contextualize this capability in its own units with their idiosyncratic structures and cultures. It will inevitably entail a period of trial and error as militaries develop their preferred equipment and tactics, techniques, and procedures. That means it must begin or continue at a fast clip now to be prepared for tomorrow’s encounters.

Kerry Chávez, PhD is an assistant professor in the Military and Strategic Studies Department at the US Air Force Academy. She is also a nonresident research fellow with the Institute for Global Affairs, a two-time nonresident research fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and an advisor for Project Air and Space Power at the Irregular Warfare Initiative. Her research focusing on the politics, strategies, and technologies of modern conflict and security has been published in several venues.

Ori Swed, PhD is an assistant professor in the Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work Department and director of the Peace, War, and Social Conflict Laboratory at Texas Tech University. His scholarship on nonstate actors in conflict settings and technology and society has been featured in multiple peer-reviewed journals and his own edited volume. He also gained twelve years of field experience with the Israel Defense Forces as a special forces operative and reserve captain, and as a private security contractor.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or any organization the authors are affiliated with, including the United States Air Force Academy and the Department of the Air Force.

Image credit: Israel Defense Forces