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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Israeli advances in UAVs

A defence news story tells us that Israel is "improving" its UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) force, but budget constraints are forcing compromises. The problem is that UAV expenditures are made in Israel, because Israel has developed its own unique advanced UAV technology. These expenditures are therefore not funded by US aid, but are real money that must come at the expense of more urgent needs like funding Yeshiva students and new volvos for ministers.
TEL NOF AIR FORCE BASE, Israel - The Israel Air Force (IAF) wants to double the size of its UAV inventory, but budget realities are forcing new measures by which to calculate future force needs, the service's top acquisition official said.

Instead of focusing on a desired number of unmanned platforms, the IAF is designing its force according to capabilities that can be dedicated to specific operational theaters. Through acquisition of more reliable, longer-endurance, increasingly capable multi-role UAVs, the IAF expects to more than double its coverage of essential focal points - "mokdim" in Hebrew - without doubling its physical inventory.

"Under less restrictive budgetary conditions, we'd like to double the quantity of our force," the IAF general said. "But realistically, we need to work on multiple fronts and by innovative means to close capability gaps and enhance operational effectiveness."

His deputy who directs UAV programs for the IAF Air Staff said, "We truly believe in the force-multiplying effect. It's not that numbers don't count. They do. But continuous, persistent, increasingly capable multirole presence matters more."

By the next few years, the junior officer said, the IAF plans to field around-the-clock overlapping unmanned systems over several focal points
deemed critical by the military's three territorial commands.

Coverage will be provided by three distinct systems: the Hermes 450, which comprises the lowest layer and backbone of the IAF's UAV squadron; the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI)-built Shoval, or Heron, medium altitude system; and Eitan, Israel's newest and largest high-altitude UAV, also by IAI.

Attempt at Openness

In an Oct. 8 seminar, the general officer and his branch chiefs exhibited some of the service's new technologies and outlined IAF modernization priorities provided for in the nation's recently approved five-year defense spending plan. They declined to discuss funding figures, delve too deeply into program specifics or even to be identified by name. The daylong event for defense reporters at this major IAF operations and logistics center
south of Tel Aviv was the first of its kind.

"The threats around us are very complex, and we're obviously restricted in how open we can be with respect to technical issues," the IAF general said. "But I think the nation deserves to know in general terms where we are and where we're headed."

He said acquisition of increasingly capable, multimission UAVs feature prominently among service priorities, along with up to six new C-130Js and upgrades of older-model Hercules airlifters, helicopter upgrades, anti-missile defenses, new information and strike systems, and initial purchases of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

In the realm of training, he said, the IAF secured funding in its five-year plan to replace the near-obsolete Tzukit primary trainer. But the IAF and Israel's MoD have not yet decided whether to buy new aircraft or to lease flight-training services through private contractors.
Outfitting Eitan

A bulk of UAV modernization funding will be earmarked to produce and equip the IAI Eitan (Steadfast), defense and industry sources here say. The high-altitude, 4.5-ton Eitan, with a wingspan akin to a Boeing 737, is designed to carry a ton of specialized sensors and advanced electronic warfare and combat gear in its bulbous forward section, in its principal payload bay and on each tail of its twin boom.

Since its first flight in July 2006, the IAF and IAI technicians have tested "all kinds of payloads, in all kinds of configuration schemes," the service official said. By the middle of next year, the IAF plans to select its preferred configuration. Initial operational capability is planned in early 2009.

Defense and industry sources said earlier that Eitan is planned for targeting missions, signals intelligence, communications relay and possibly
aerial refueling of other UAVs. It is designed to remain airborne for nearly two days. One IAF officer said he expected this huge UAV - similar to the U.S. Predator B - to remain in service for "at least the next 20 years."

In the near future, the IAF plans to phase out IAI's Searcher-2, known here as White Star, and introduce additional IAI multimission Shovals in its stead. While White Star will soon depart IAF service, it will continue to provide imagery under an IAI-operated power-by-the-hour contract with MoD.

The IAF received the first Shovals in March, although the 1,200-kilogram vehicles saw action in the summer 2006 Lebanon War. In a March 7 release, IAI said that IAF-IAI teams successfully operated the Shoval, fomerly known as Mahatz-1, at altitudes of some 30,000 feet during the war against Hizbollah.

Each Shoval will carry a variety of electro-optic and specialty payloads - including an all-weather synthetic aperture radar by IAI subsidiary Elta -
and will perform maritime patrol missions for the Israel Navy and reconnaissance and targeting for the IAF. The acquisition official said the
Shovals are much more reliable and provide much closer coordination with the IAF's manned aircraft than the Searchers.

"Range is limited by communication, and in that regard, the Shoval is about double the range" of Searcher 2, he said.

One IAF deputy declined to say how many additional Shovals would be purchased over the next five years or whether follow-on buys would continue to be awarded sole-source to IAI. When asked about the Elbit Hermes 900 - a higher-flying, heavier-hauling follow-on to the Hermes 450 scheduled to begin flight tests early next year - he said it was "too early to tell. ... The Shoval is a mature system, with more than 10,000 flight hours, as opposed to the Hermes 900, which technically doesn't yet exist."

Nevertheless, one source said, the IAF will place Hermes 450 orders valued in tens of millions of dollars.
Coming of Age

The IAF's new accent on capabilities over quantity is possible, defense and industry sources here say, due to huge gains in the reliability and
cost-effectiveness of locally made systems. In the past five years, the IAF general said, costs per UAV flight hour have plummeted about 60 percent.

One industry source said that what the IAF used to do just a decade ago with nine UAVs and three ground stations can now be accomplished by two UAVs and one ground station.

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