An Israel Aerospace Industries Heron UAV flies past. Experts say unmanned air systems may keep supplanting the missions of manned aircraft, including air-to-air combat one day. (iHLS)
TEL AVIV — Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have already superseded patrol and reconnaissance aircraft and are rendering gunships obsolete. But until they engage enemies in the air, it’s premature to speak about the end of manned platforms, according to a former Israel Air Force commander.
“The [unmanned] air-to-air mission is not a fantasy but part of the future,” said retired Maj. Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliahu at a Nov. 26 unmanned vehicles conference and air exhibition in Rishon Lezion, south of Tel Aviv.
In an address devoted to UAS trends and their prospects for replacing manned platforms, Ben-Eliahu said leading air forces are phasing out costly fixed-wing and rotary aircraft for a spectrum of unmanned reconnaissance, surveillance and targeting missions. In terms of future force planning, he said, “The attack helicopter is finished.”
But unmanned aircraft cannot replace manned transports, the former Israeli air chief insisted. “I don’t see human beings being transported by unmanned vehicles.”
While unmanned systems offer considerable savings in acquisition, life-cycle and training costs, they lack deterrent power.
“UAVs will not contribute enough to deterrence to prevent war,” he said.
“When the F-35 is operational in Israel, it will have a dramatic effect on deterring our enemies. ... So even if we have hundreds of UAVs, it won’t impact the balance of power as much as a single squadron of F-35s.”
The former air chief also said UAVs are highly dependent on networked command and control, which renders them more vulnerable to cyber attack than manned fighters, “which know how to perform their mission in total silence.”
Despite these disadvantages, Ben-Eliahu said he could envision a time when UAS platforms will replace manned fighters, provided they are sufficiently equipped to perform traditional fighter missions.
“We pilots are the decision makers ... and the claim to fame of fighter pilots are dogfights. So in the future, part of the process of replacing jet fighters with UAVs will be the ability to start dogfights between drones,” he added.
Shaul Shahar, general manager of the Malat Division of Israel Aerospace Industries, said unmanned air-to-air combat is a realistic prospect within 15 years.
Speaking at the same event organized by Israel Homeland Security (iHLS), Shahar, a retired colonel with 3,000 hours operating UAVs on behalf of Israeli military intelligence, said Ben-Eliahu’s support for dogfighting drones reflected a serious, albeit embryonic research-and-development trend.
“It was the first time someone at his level spoke about it,” Shahar said of the prospect of unmanned air-to-air missions.