By Peter La Franchi in London
Operations in Lebanon and the Gaza strip are providing the first clear evidence that Israel has armed a number of unmanned air vehicles to reduce engagement times for time-sensitive targets. The USA is the only other nation known to operate armed UAVs.
The air vehicles involved are believed to be Israel Aircraft Industries Herons, which have only recently entered operational service with the Israeli air force. The missiles carried are possibly Rafael Spikes, although this has not been independently confirmed. The Israeli defence ministry has not responded to requests for comment.
Reports of weaponised Israeli UAVs being used in the current crisis include a 27 July operation over the Gaza Strip and a strike against suspected Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon 31 July.
Rafael has been pushing Spike as a weapons option for UAVs for at least two years. At the 2005 Paris air show Sagem displayed an early mock-up of its Sperwer-B UAV equipped with a single Spike dispenser tube under each wing.
Israel also operates IAI Searcher II and Elbit Hermes 450S unmanned air vehicles, both of which would be capable of carrying at least two Spike missiles in the configuration proposed for Sperwer.
Northrop Grumman last year revealed a two-Hellfire missile carriage capability for its Hunter II version of Heron as part of its unsuccessful bid for a US Army requirement.
Israel's deployment of armed UAVs appears to be limited and based around the Heron.
Hellfire in flight captured by the video camera of an Israeli UAV
Israel is also making extensive use of UAVs for reconnaissance, off-board targeting for manned strike platforms and electronic intelligence gathering. Video sequences recorded by UAVs include one showing a Lockheed Martin Hellfire missile launched by a second platform during its terminal flight phase.
The USA deploys armed General Atomics Aeronautical Systems International MQ-1 Predator and Northrop RQ-5 Hunter UAVs in Afghanistan and Iraq, carrying Hellfire and Northrop Viper Strike missiles, respectively.