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Israeli military uses tech as its protective edge

As part of Road Trip 2015, CNET visits a handful of Israel Defense Forces bases to see an F-16I fighter jet, advanced missile defense systems and a pilot's helmet packed with wearable tech.

Check out all the places we've been on CNET's Road Trip 2015.

HATZERIM AIRBASE, Israel -- In the middle of this flat, sprawling military installation in the Negev Desert, Captain R. walked into a dusty concrete lot where a series of low-slung sheds housed about half a dozen F-16I fighter jets.

The 25-year-old pilot, whose name wasn't disclosed to protect his identity, had a clean-shaven, youthful face and short, brown hair. He wore an olive-green jumpsuit with the insignia of his Knights of the Orange Tail squadron -- a tiger's face with wings -- on a patch over his chest.

Inside what looked like a bowling-ball bag, he carried one of the many cutting-edge technologies the Israeli military uses today: a weighty helmet with wires dangling from the sides and a bulky oxygen mask at the front.

The helmet, an item that's custom-built for each Israeli Air Force pilot, includes a camera to record missions for later debriefings and a tiny projector that can display mapping and flight data information on the right side of the headpiece's black visor.

Captain R. has been flying the F-16I, shown behind him, for the past two years. Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

"It helps me bring the aircraft's unique technologies into effect," Captain R. told me, such as allowing him to lock onto a target while flying the F-16I and see it from the visor.

The visor display, made by Israel-based defense contractor Elbit Systems, is among a handful of homegrown technologies Israel developed to help its military respond to the unique threats the Middle Eastern country faces. Along with the F-16I, an Israeli-modified version of the Lockheed Martin aircraft that has been a mainstay of the US military, the country also created defensive systems to counter attacks from its many surrounding enemies, both at close range and from hundreds of miles away.

An active Iron Dome battery in an open field outside of the city of Ashkelon. Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

During a visit to the country last month, I drove down a dirt road to an open field outside the city of Ashkelon, located just north of Gaza, where the Israel Defense Forces placed one of the missile batteries for the Iron Dome. The mobile defensive system, which went operational in 2011 and was developed with Israel-based Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, is a rapid-response battery created to blow up short-range rockets fired from Gaza while they're still in the sky. The Ashkelon battery, manned by a small group of soldiers working out of short corrugated-steel buildings, was a beige metal box propped up vertically and filled with missiles.

About an hour's drive north at the Menashe regional military base, Col. Yoni Saada Marom, commander of the Active Defense Air Wing, showed me the far larger Arrow system, which can be used against intercontinental ballistics. That system went operational in 2000 amid looming threats from Iraq.

"The Arrow is a much more complicated weapon system, because you have a target coming from space," he told me while we stood next to an Arrow battery, its tube-shaped rocket launchers towering over us. "The Arrow needs to mitigate a target coming from a very high speed."

Col. Yoni Saada Marom at a military base housing the Arrow intercontinental missile defense system. Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

In comparison, the innovation of the Iron Dome is that it can very quickly intercept missiles fired from just a few miles away, he explained.

A third, medium-range missile defense system called David's Sling is still under development and will be used to help Israel against regional attacks.

Marom told me these defensive systems not only save lives and prevent the disruption of Israelis' daily activities, but they can also give Israel's decision-makers more time to weigh their next moves. "I think this is one of the objectives of a very effective defense," he said.

Captain R. has firsthand experience with plenty of Israel's military technologies. He started flying the F-16I two years ago, moving up from his training with propeller engine planes and the lighter, simpler F-16A jet.

After a year training with the F-16I, he started combat duty and flew daily missions during the 2014 conflict in Gaza against Hamas.

"On the one hand, as a professional, you want to check yourself," Captain R. told me while we sat in his squadron building, as shrieking fighter jet engines warmed up in the distance. "You want to see that you are capable of doing what you have learned. But on the other hand, your profession is war. So, that's a conflict."

One benefit, he said, is having some of the most advanced military technologies in the world at his disposal to help prevent civilian casualties. The F-16I is equipped with GPS-guided JDAM bombs as well as a Rafael-made Litening targeting and navigation camera pod that hangs off the plane's inlet and gives a pilot a broad picture of a target below.

During one mission in Gaza last year, Captain R. got approval to bomb a target after it was swept earlier by a drone.

The F-16I, an Israeli modified version of the US jet fighter, can reach above Mach 2 at high altitudes. Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

"It wasn't part of the mission, but I decided I wanted to clear the target myself" using the camera pod, he said. "Ten seconds before I launched the bomb, I saw children playing near the target, so I stopped the launching sequence."

He then waited until the target was clear to go back and complete the bombing mission.

Such a scenario was far from Captain R.'s initial plans when he first joined the military, saying he dreamed of becoming a Navy captain because of his love of the sea.

"I'm an adrenaline junkie now," he said. "There aren't a lot of things that excite me as much as flying an F-16."

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