TEL AVIV - The Israel Air Force's Eitan (Steadfast) heavy-hauling, multimission UAV will soon become operational, the fruit of a two-year program to certify the system for networked operations with other manned and unmanned platforms.
Produced by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the Eitan - known internationally as the Heron TP - made its operational debut last winter during Israel's Cast Lead anti-rocket assault on the Gaza Strip.
The 4.5-ton aircraft, whose wingspan nearly matches a Boeing 737's, flies automatically in high-altitude safety for 60 hours at a stretch. It carries 1 ton of specialized sensors, satellite communications gear and other equipment tailored to various IAF missions.
Sources here declined to specify how Israel's newest and largest UAV was used in the 22-day Gaza campaign, but confirmed that data from the wartime deployment sped up its operational acceptance.
That mimics the pattern blazed by the Shavit, an IAI-produced signals intelligence (SigInt) aircraft based on the Gulfstream 550, whose combat debut in the 2006 Lebanon War hastened its operational acceptance by the IAF.
With at least two new Eitans nearly ready to provide all-weather, sensor-to-shooter networked operations, sources in Israel say developmental efforts are shifting to equipping later aircraft for special missions now performed by manned Shavits.
"We want to expand flexibility of the multimission payload to take on more roles now done exclusively by manned aircraft," a Ministry of Defense development official said.
That would include comprehensive standoff collection and processing of strategic-level intelligence, defense and industry sources said. The UAVs are currently capable of gathering electronic and communications intelligence, but only at the tactical level.
"The Gulfstream costs three or four times more than Heron TP, and the UAV can remain airborne longer in high-threat territory," the MoD official said.
In the very long term, unmanned platforms could be converted into long-range jammers; the ministry's multiyear funding plans do not currently fund electronic warfare-specific development.
For the nearer term, MoD is funding technical studies aimed at miniaturizing elements of the multiton Airborne Integrated SigInt System payload developed by IAI's Elta Systems Division for the Shavit. In parallel, MoD is working with local industry to lower the electrical needs of the payload and other on-board systems.
Tommy Silberring, general manager of IAI's Malat Division that produces the Heron TP, declined to comment specifically on MoD plans for Israel's Eitans. Speaking in general, Silberring said the Heron TP's 1,200-horsepower engine can generate enough power for strategic signals collection and electronic eavesdropping missions - "but to go to active jamming for electronic warfare is not so easy."
The IAI executive said the Heron TP is designed to take on new and varied missions, and will assume increasing prominence in the IAF's future force.
"The IAF is well aware of how Heron TP can help," Silberring said. "They'll need to reduce payload power [for SigInt missions] but this area is certainly one of the missions to be included as many air forces make the gradual transition from manned to unmanned platforms."
Igo Licht, director of marketing and sales at Elta, said manned aircraft offer advantages over UAVs for strategic intelligence missions.
"Manned aircraft carry much more than UAVs, they offer much higher power generations and then there's the issue of bandwidth if you have to transmit to the ground. And because SigInt and special mission aircraft are inherently very long range, they're deployed at standoff ranges. They never will get close to enemy lines," he said.
Nevertheless, Licht acknowledged that Israel and other countries are giving UAVs missions once reserved for manned aircraft.
"There will be a sharing of missions, but we believe manned and unmanned aircraft will operate for many years side by side. For the next 10 or even 20 years, we don't see UAVs replacing manned SigInt aircraft," he said.
Tal Inbar, head of the Space and UAV Center at Israel's Fisher Institute for Air and Space Studies, said long-endurance, high-flying UAVs such as the Heron TP will naturally evolve into new roles and missions, including signals intelligence and even electronic warfare.