Israel Aircraft Industries' (IAI's) decision to sell the Galaxy and Astra business jet lines to US company General Dynamics' Gulfstream Aerospace subsidiary has enabled it to place the products more widely. Equally as important for the Israel Defence Force (IDF), the move has enabled the Israeli air force to order a new generation of surveillance/command and control aircraft using US foreign military funding credits.

Scheduled to achieve initial operating capability in late 2005, the new fleet will utilise the Gulfstream G550 airframe and provide services including airborne early warning (AEW) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) more efficiently than the air force's ageing Boeing 707 special mission aircraft. Three G550s will be configured for integrated SIGINT duties withsystems provided by IAI's Elta Systems subsidiary, which will also integrate self-protection equipment across the new fleet, believed to include three AEW platforms. The G550 has a maximum operating ceiling of 51,000ft (15,550m) and a mission endurance of 10-11h before modification, and Elta believes the new platform will be "probably the most advanced signals intelligence aircraft out there".

The SIGINT aircraft will havesatellite and line-of-sight communications equipment, enabling it to send data to the ground for exploitation. However, operators can also becarried to perform this work in theair, enabling the platform to work as an airborne command and control post. Elta president Israel Livnat says: "Mission operators will fade out over time - the payload will be more of a UAV approach." The G550 has already been touted for potentialconversion for future unmannedoperations.

The launch success in Israel is unlikely to be the only sale for the G550-based surveillance capability, with the AEW version now vying for multi-billion-dollar business in South Korea against a Boeing/Northrop Grumman-backed 737-700 variant. With numerous countries - reportedly including Colombia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - looking for new fleets of surveillance aircraft, IAI and its Elta subsidiary appear well placed to secure new business. IAI still manufactures the aircraft - rebranded as the G100 and G200 - at its facilities bordering Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, with them then flown to Texas for interior fitting and painting.

IAI is also working on other surveillance systems derived from the radar technologies developed for its Phalcon AEW radar and the Green Pine fire-control radar which forms part of the company's Arrow anti-tactical ballistic missile system. One example is the developmental Airstar AEW system - a 1,700kg (3,750lb) phased-array radar that will be contained within a tethered 74m (240ft) aerostat and left for weeks at a time to perform look-down surveillance from an altitude of about 4,000ft. As well as the clear export potential of such a system for IAI and Elta, the importance of such surveillance assets to the IDF was underlined last month when Hezbollah penetrated Israeli airspace using an Iranian-developed UAV (Flight International, 16-22 November).

Source: Flight International