But air force looks for sensor and operational enhancements after lessons are learned from Lebanon conflict

Israel is continuing to analyse the contribution provided by its unmanned air vehicle systems during Operation Change of Direction, but its air force has already drawn initial operational conclusions from their use during the four-week conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Unmanned aircraft were one of the main real-time intelligence tools available to Israeli air force and ground commanders, who conducted operations in southern Lebanon with the principal task of halting Hezbollah militants from launching rockets into Israel.

Iran-backed Hezbollah used the interval between Israel's military withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 and the latest conflict to fortify itself in almost every village and town, from where it was able to launch up to 170 rockets a day into Israel. The organisation also amassed an arsenal of around 13,000 rockets, including Russian-made 122mm Katyushas and Syrian-sourced 302mm weapons, says the Israeli defence ministry.

With the outbreak of hostilities on 12 July, the air force focused its efforts on suppressing Hezbollah's launch capabilities, cutting off its resupply routes from Syria and destroying the fully Hezbollah-controlled quarter of Beirut. UAVs served as the eyes and ears for these operations, launching from bases in central and northern Israel and also from landing strips usually employed by crop-spraying aircraft after rockets landed near air force facilities in northern Israel.

IAF Heron 1 W445
© Israeli Air Force Magazine

 Israel's UAV systems --including its newly delivered Heron 1s-- mounted 'round-the-clock operations

Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) sources say the air force's recently delivered Heron 1 UAVs performed "beyond expectation" during the war, and demonstrated the full extent of the type's endurance while flying day and night missions over enemy territory. Heron air vehicles flew hundreds of sorties and amassed thousands of flight hours carrying 250kg (550lb) payloads comprising a variety of sensors. IAI says the medium-altitiude, long-endurance vehicle provided unmatched reliability, with no mission aborts.

Air force sources say the Heron was used mainly for electronic-intelligence missions over Lebanon. The service's IAI Searcher 2s also flew thousands of mission hours with excellent reliability, IAI says.

The air force also accumulated 15,000 flight hours with its Elbit Systems Hermes 450 UAVs in the conflict, flying round-the-clock missions with the type, which had previously recorded an annual usage rate of 10,000h. Three Hermes 450s crashed during the war: two as a result of technical problems and one due to operator error, with air force Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters having subsequently bombed the wreckage. Lebanese sources quoted in the Arab language press say the Hermes 450 was also used for precision attack missions. The Israeli air force declines to comment (Flight International, 8-14 August).

Squadron sources say that while the UAV's 50hp (40kW) UEL engine was strained by the increased operational demands, modifications introduced over recent years proved successful. "The number of major technical problems under these conditions was minor," says one.

Elbit's Skylark mini-UAV had been undergoing evaluation by the Israeli defence forces ahead of the conflict, and a limited number of systems were deployed in Lebanon. "They surprised us with their flexibility and ease of operation," says a defence force source. However, another notes that their unexpected operational use demonstrated an urgent need for improved payloads: "We need to make them capable of not only detecting a person, but recognising him positively."

Other air force investments of recent years intended to shorten the sensor-to-shooter time during joint operations between its UAVs and attack helicopters also proved their worth during missions in southern Lebanon, the service says. Tadiran Spectralink's Givolit datalink system allowed the service to react quickly against targets such as rocket launchers by relaying images from a UAV directly into the cockpit of a Boeing AH-64 Apache, enabling its pilots to immediately launch missiles.

Sources say Hezbollah was ready for the UAVs and in many cases camouflaged rocket launchers, particularly with the use of special "carpets" that absorbed the sun's heat and radiated it at night to affect the efficiency of Israeli thermal sensors. "In many cases we had to detect the launch flash to determine the location of the launcher," says an air force source.

As well as highlighting the need for improved sensors, the campaign has prompted the Israeli air and defence forces to work together on an operating concept that will allow their UAVs to combine to provide a more detailed picture of an area of interest. "We will need improved optical payloads for day and night and a joint operational pattern between the Hermes 450 and the Skylark mini UAV," says one source. Another lesson learned is the need to equip tactical UAVs with countermeasures similar to those carried by manned aircraft.

Military and industry sources say the war has again underlined the capability of unmanned systems in performing a variety of combat missions, and believe their number will increase rapidly. "We expect a growing need for joint operation of different UAVs," says Haim Kellerman, general manager of Elbit's UAV division.

Source: Flight International