23 February 2010|
How Israel's Biggest Drone Could Take Out Iranian Nukes
By Joe Pappalardo
This week the Israeli Air Force held a ceremony spotlighting the "operational acceptance" of its biggest unmanned aerial vehicle. Here, we explore how Israel could use this new vehicle to take out Iranian nukes. For an in-depth look at the way the U.S. Air Force is remaking its UAV fleet.
This week the Israeli Air Force (IAF) held a ceremony spotlighting the "operational acceptance" of its biggest unmanned aerial vehicle, the 4.5-ton Heron TP, or "Eitan." The far-flying UAV, with a wingspan almost as long as a 737 airliner, appeared on the runway with a comparatively diminutive F-15 alongside it. The IAF already rushed this UAV into action during the 2008–'09 war in Gaza, so the ceremony really served as a reminder to Iran that its drone fleets can reach the nation. But how will Israel use them?
The Eitan can carry a ton of payload and can reach Iran's nuclear facilities, which The United nations last week determined is hiding an active weapons program. But that does not mean these will be used as bombers. The IAF has been buying and upgrading airplanes specifically for long-distance strikes such as a potential attack against Iran. At least 50 F-15 Raam and F-16 Soufa aircraft have been converted by installing extra fuel tanks for greater range and countermeasures to defeat radar and missiles. So maybe the warplane/UAV tag team presented at the "operational acceptance ceremony" speaks to how manned and unmanned aircraft will work together on missions: The drone provides information while the manned airplanes drop the guided munitions.
Working from high altitudes, the Eitan will likely be used to provide prestrike information on targets, to eavesdrop on electronic communications and to send battle damage assessments back after an attack. It will also undoubtably be used to monitor any retaliation for the airstrike—seeking rocket launches and eavesdropping on Iran. The onboard power required to electronically jam radar and communications equipment is not in the Eitan, Israeli defense industry officials told the trade journal Defense News. But the ability to carry so much weight opens up questions about the drones' ability to conduct long-range, high-risk bombing missions on their own.
Early literature suggested the Eitan would have a role in shooting down enemy missiles in flight as well as in bombing targets. But the craft at the ceremony featured a pod under the nose that contains only sensors, which can track moving targets at high resolution, day or night. Eitanhas the eyes of a predator, but seemingly no claws. Unless, of course, the less public Israeli Eitan fleet has hidden surprises in UAVs' bays or tacked onto the wings at various hard points. But just providing information could greatly assist with an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities—especially if Israeli special forces are present on the ground. Deep in enemy territory, they would be avid consumers of such recon.
Israel has been at the forefront of UAV development for decades, and taught the U.S. a thing or two about drones. The U.S. Air Force flew unmanned recon drones called Lightning Bugs during the 1970s in Vietnam, but shut down all its UAV funding until the mid-1980s. Israel changed world opinion about UAVs in 1982 when they used small UAVs to trick radar installations into becoming active during the battle in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley; manned airplanes then moved in to destroy the radar sites after the unmanned planes revealed their locations. This is not the kind of mission the Eitan will fly—they soar at high altitudes that make them difficult targets, and flirting with surface-to-air missile sites is not their role. The United States realized UAV potential only after the Bekaa Valley campaign. Still, during the 1990s, the Pentagon spent only $3 billion on UAV development, procurement and operations. It took wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to change all that: The Defense Department is spending $5.4 billion on UAVs this year alone.
America sees the advantage of UAVs in insurgent campaigns, both urban
and rural. But in a "big war" operation, when enemy radar and missiles
are robust, as they are in Iran, the way Israel could use its UAVs is
worth watching. Israel's long-distance Eitans are not that new, but
the way they could be used during a complex air raid could be
groundbreaking. Literally and figuratively.