Speed is critical in maritime patrol – UAS vs manned platforms

Maritime patrol aircraft have gained greater importance in recent years, countering terror threats from the sea, protecting the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and watching over offshore natural resources.

Unmanned air systems look to be the perfect solution. Long hours of “ironing”  huge spans of ocean is a tedious job for pilots and other crew members of maritime patrol aircraft. In Israel the problem is acute – the terror threat from the Mediterranean is imminent and varied.

But what looked at first the perfect solution turned out to be only an partial one. The result – the Israeli navy will continue to rely on a mix of manned and unmanned systems for maritime patrol missions.

Three years ago, the Israeli air force (IAF), together with the navy, decided to prolong the service life of its Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Westwind 1124 maritime patrol aircraft.

The 1124 ‘Shahaf’ are operated by the IAF for the navy on maritime patrol missions. The aircraft – an older type of business jet – is equipped with many advanced sensors, most of them made by Elta, an IAI subsidiary. The main sensor is a high-power maritime radar.

In recent years IAI Heron UAS have been operating in parallel with the 1124, with the intention being to phase out the older aircraft when the UAS can perform the mission fully.

Recently, however, the navy and IAF decided to prolong the service life of the 1124 by performing fuselage and wing treatments and upgrading the type’s sensors.

The main reason for this change is that while Heron UAS are performing many missions, they lack the speed needed to perform fast over-flights of a suspicious target at sea.

Speed is of critical importance when you have to detect and verify a potential threat. You want to do it as far as possible from potential targets on the shore or at sea. Plus, in Israel’s case, away from the huge underwater reservoirs of natural gas that have been discovered offshore.

So it now seems the 1124 will keep flying until there is a manned substitute. One option is the Gulfstream G550, used by Elta as an AEW&C platform. A second is the Bombardier Q400.

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