In the face of Hizbullah's efforts to rebuild its military infrastructure and Syria's heightened alert along the border with Israel, the IAF on Wednesday inaugurated a next-generation Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), which officers said "opened a new world" for Israeli military capabilities. Called the Heron, the UAV - made by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) - is capable of remaining two days straight in the air without refueling. In comparison, the UAV currently in IAF use - called the Searcher Mk. II - can only remain in the air for 12 hours straight.
IAI reveals new aerospace projects
The Heron can also fly at altitudes of 30,000 feet, making it a difficult target for standard anti-aircraft weapons. It has the ability to carry a 250-kg. payload, in comparison to the 100 kg. the Searcher is able to hold. The Heron has a wingspan of 16.6 meters and weighs 1,200 kilograms, with an operation range of hundreds of kilometers and the ability to fly in all weather conditions, as well as during the day and at night.
"We are now on the verge of a new world with a much wider range of capabilities," a top IAF officer said.
During the Lebanon war this past summer, IAI supplied an IAF squadron based in Palmahim with a number of Herons to begin experimenting with. On Wednesday, the IAF received Heron UAVs. In 2006, the Indian Air Force signed a $220 million deal with IAI to purchase 50 Herons, which will be fully functional by the middle of the year.
"The delivery of the Heron signifies a major breakthrough in IAF capabilities when it comes to the operation of UAVs," IAI CEO Yitzhak Nissan said.
Alongside the delivery of the Heron, the air force also plans to purchase new next-generation cameras and sensors that will be fitted onto the new UAV and are capable of transmitting a clearer and better image of targets. The IAF is considering purchasing the IAI-manufactured Multi-mission Optronic Stabilized Payload (MOSP) capable of full-day and night operations and with targeting capabilities.
In addition to the Heron and the Searcher, the IAF also flies Elbit System's Hermes 450, which according to Aviation Week is operated by the squadron. According to the magazine, the Hermes is capable of carrying and launching air-to-surface missiles. The Rafael Armaments Development Authority has developed the Spike-ER (extended range) missile, according to the report, capable of being fitted onto a UAV and flown into a target by the operator or as a fire-and-forget system.
At the moment, the IAF does not plan to install satellite communication systems on the Heron and will suffice with the existing technology that works based on a Line of Sight (LOS), which means that the UAV can be operated as long as it is in range of the control booth.
If the IAF overcomes its budget constraints, however, it may purchase satellite communication systems for its UAVs. Once that happens, the IAF will be able to fly UAVs to distances as far as countries like Iran, the focus of much of the air force's current concern.
During the Lebanon war, the Searcher and Heron - with a communications range of 100-200 kilometers - were flown from control rooms at Palmahim base near Ashdod. In case of a flight deeper into Lebanon and out of communication range from Palmahim, the IAF also keeps UAV control booths in the North.