Future manned aircraft procurement programmes will have to be adjusted based on the capabilities of advanced unmanned aircraft vehicles now under development, the Israeli air force admits.
Most of the UAVs under development in Israel and in use with the IAF are highly classified, and will stay that way for years to come. "The UAVs that the Israeli armed forces are using on a daily basis are a super force multiplier," says a senior source at the Israeli ministry of defence, adding that some of the programmes make UAVs "not just a substitute for manned aircraft, but a tool with dramatically enhanced capabilities".
In addition to programmes funded by the MoD, Israel's two main manufacturers, Elbit Systems and the Malat division of Israel Aerospace Industries, are investing their own research and development money in advanced UAV systems. One partially unclassified project is IAI's Heron 2 or Heron TP. The IAF is test flying this large UAV, which it has dubbed "Eitan". According to an IAF source, the test flights will continue through 2008 "before series production begins".
Industry and air force sources frequently refer to UAVs as a satellite substitute, and when the prototype Eitan was unveiled in late 2007 at Tel-Nof air force base it was fitted with what appeared to be the housing for an advanced multi-sensor payload.
Powered by a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 turboprop, and 13m (43ft) long with a wing span of 26m, the Eitan has a maximum take-off weight of 4t. The aircraft is designed for autonomous take-off and landing, a feature of most UAVs developed in Israel. Sources estimate the Eitan has an endurance of over 70h and a ceiling of 45,000ft. Its composite fuselage is designed to carry large-volume payloads, and the new UAV will perform some long-range missions now accomplished by manned IAF aircraft.
Israel has been operating UAVs for more than 30 years and it has become a major supplier to many countries. The IAF will not disclose the scope of its UAV operations, but sources say it is "massive", running all year long, 24h a day. In the first Lebanon war, in 1982, only a few basic Scout UAVs helped suppress Syrian surface-air missiles. By the second Lebanon war, in 2006, the variety and number of UAVs used by the Israelis was huge.
A few years ago the air force became the sole operator of UAVs within the Israel military. This followed years of operating them in parallel with the Israeli intelligence corps. Now the Israeli defence force is in the process of selecting small UAVs that will provide fighting units an "over the hill" capability.
The capability to develop and manufacture advanced unmanned platforms has resulted in a growing number of loitering systems or "hunters". IAI recently partially unveiled its Harop loitering attack UAV, which is being evaluated by India and Turkey. Bigger than the company's Harpy anti-radiation drone, the Harop is equipped with an electro-optical sensor that enables the operator to select targets during the loiter over the target area.
While IAI and Elbit are the leading UAV companies in Israel, others contribute to the wide variety of systems in service and under development. The realisation that UAVs are going to perform many missions in future combat scenarios has brought other companies to the market.
Israel Military Industries, mostly an ammunition manufacturer, has developed a type of UAV that serves as munitions dispenser, but is looking for a US partner for the Modular Stand-Off Vehicle (MSOV). "We are still hoping to find a partner to complete the system," says president Avi Felder, IMI began development of the MSOV as a direct competitor to the US Raytheon AGM-154A Joint Stand-Off weapon.
The wide variety of existing vehicles, and industry's proven capability to develop others on a "needed for combat" basis, has led the IAF to build a three-tier UAV force. A senior IAF source confirms the plans and adds that this force structure will increase the variety of missions performed by UAVs. "If we had twice the number of UAVs, we would have missions for all of them. The demand is simply high and increasing constantly," the source says.
In the last five years, the IAF has decreased by 60% the operational cost of its UAVs. The average flight-hour cost is currently estimated at $1,000. This is also a byproduct of technologies incorporated in new systems and the growing operational experience.
The IAF is deploying new generations of vehicle as they reach maturity. The air force will soon phase out its IAI Searcher 2 UAVs and base its squadrons around yet-to-be-selected mini-UAVs, Elbit's medium-altitude Hermes-450 (which it calls the Zik), IAI's Heron-1 (Shoval) and the high-altitude, heavy Eitan.
Heron TP: test flights by the IAF will continue this year
While the IAF will use a three-tier fleet, the IDF's ground forces command is getting ready to select the baseline mini-UAV for its fighting units. The main candidates are the Rafael SkyLite, Elbit's SkyLark and IAI's I-view.
The massive deployment of new UAV systems has created a parallel effort to develop a variety of payloads - by the manufacturers themselves and by dedicated payload companies. Electro-optic payloads are being developed by Controp, Elbit and IAI radar payloads by Elta, an IAI subsidiary. According to the senior IAF source, some of the new UAVs will have dual electro-optic/radar payloads for greater flexibility.
Advanced payloads "open the envelope" and unmanned platforms are slowly replacing manned aircraft. Only recently, the IAF equipped two of its Soval UAVs with maritime surveillance sensors and will soon operate them for the navy to replace manned patrol aircraft. "At first they will be operated parallel to the Seascan. These will gradually be phased out and the UAV will do the mission," a senior IAF source says. The air force has been operating the Seascans, modified IAI Westwind business jets, since 1978.
As technology matures, Israeli companies are working to increase the variety on UAVs they produce. In the pipeline are a system that will transform a manned helicopter into an unmanned rotorcraft and a ducted-fan unmanned vehicle developed by Urban Aeronautics. The latter is designed to be used for medevec and supply missions in combat zones.
Shlomo Tsach, director of advanced programmes at IAI, is the man behind some of the company's UAV systems. He says that, in the coming years, efforts will be focused on shorter take-offs, lower operating costs and on a greater use of solar power and fuel cells. "The miniaturisation of the payloads also dictates the development of small UAVs," he says. "With a 10g (0.4oz) camera with excellent quality, the capabilities are very clear."
Tsach espouses the view that the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which Israel plans to purchase, will be the last manned fighter. "UAVs will take over all the missions before this aircraft will finish its operational life."