By Barbara Opall-Rome
25 Jan 2010
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.
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.