Israel working on low-observable UAV

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The Israeli military is developing a large, classified unmanned air vehicle (UAV) with features consistent with stealthy aircraft designs, according to a knowledgable source.

The secret project involves a "fairly large" UAV in development by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the maker of the non-stealthy Heron and Eitan (which is called the Heron TP for export) UAVs, the source says.

Israel has been openly involved with stealth and minimal-detection programmes. Experts familiar with Israeli industry profess little surprise in a low-observable aircraft capability.

"There have been rumours about it, and you see Israeli companies have rolled out an array of products across the spectrum," says a former US government official. "You would expect that stealth is something they'd be interested in, particularly in light of the threats they face."

Israel, a small nation surrounded by largely hostile neighbors, has long placed an emphasis on operating in denied areas with various means. Recent airstrikes thought to involve Israel include a 2007 strike that destroyed a nuclear plant in Syria, and two more recent strikes on targets deep in Sudanese territory. Operations over denied airspace, particularly airspace protected by sophisticated surface-to-air networks, require both stealth and endurance.

"I know that they were working on small and medium-size variants [of stealth aircraft] for some years now," says one industry analyst, who declined to comment on the record. According to the analyst, IAI has been working on stealth technologies since the mid-1990s or earlier.

"You would think from a national security perspective, that they would be willing to put a lot of money on that project," says one current aerospace executive. "They've been pretty evolutionary with the Heron series of UAVs, I could easily see them trying to trick one out, put some [stealthy] materials on."

Israel, long known as a leader in UAV technology, is conspicuously quiet on the subject of stealth. An Israeli stealth UAV would join a long list of unmanned projects designed to evade radar detection. The US has launched several projects including the Northrop Grumman X-47 and the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel. Meanwhile, acknowledged European projects include the BAE Systems Taranis and Dassault Neuron. Similar projects have also surfaced in Russia and India.

"It would be a logical next step for either an IAI or an Elbit," says an industry analyst. "If you look at the evolution of the species, you've got [BAE] Tyrannis, you've got [Boeing] Phantom Ray, [Northrop Grumman] X-47, you even have the [MiG] Scat system. I would not dismiss it out of hand."

IAI did not immediately respond to questions.