Monday, February 22, 2010

Keeping an Eye on Iran

Israel has raised the ante in its stand-off with Iran, unveiling a new long-range drone that can monitor Tehran's nuclear facilities, and (potentially) carry weapons that could be used against those sites.

The Heron TP--nick-named "Eitan" by the Israeli Air Force--is one of the largest UAVs in the world. The drone made its public debut on Sunday, with a press event at Tel Nof Airbase near Rehovot. The propeller-drive UAV has a wingspan almost as long as a Boeing 737 jetliner; overall, the Eitan is about three-quarters as large as the U.S. Global Hawk, which flies at much higher altitudes and can remain over a target for a much longer period.

Still, the new UAV represents a quantum leap for the IAF's already-impressive drone fleet. For the first time, Israeli intelligence analysts (and military planners) have a surveillance drone that can reach Iranian targets and remain on station for more than 12 hours. Eitan can carry a variety of sensor packages and its on-board satellite communications suite allows ground operators to instantly access what the UAV is collecting.

Introduction of the Eitan (which has already entered limited service) will give the Israelis far greater flexibility in gathering information against Iran. While Israel already has a small constellation of spy satellites, their coverage is somewhat limited, and their collection "windows" are predictable, allowing the Iranians to conceal sensitive activities when the platforms are overhead.

Israel also has access to much of the satellite imagery collected by the United States. But those assets are subject to the same limitations, and the Israelis are concerned about the future of information-sharing agreements under the Obama Administration. With the IAF standing up a squadron of Heron TPs later this year, Tel Aviv will become slightly less dependent on foreign intelligence collection in keeping tabs on Iran.

The new UAV also has the ability to respond more quickly to pop-up or ad hoc tasking. Anyone who's been in the spy business knows how difficult it is to "roll" a satellite and cover fleeting events along the edge of its track. Assuming the request is actually approved, the result (in many cases) is limited-quality imagery and the expenditure of precious fuel on the "bird," decreasing its operational career.

By comparison, it's much easier to dispatch a UAV, based on an established "collection deck," or in response to cueing from other sensors. And, while a satellite's surveillance window (against a particular target) is often measured in minutes, the drone can orbit for hours, providing an expanded view of enemy activities and making it easier to spot developing trends.

Those same features are also useful against high-value mobile targets, like Tehran's medium-range missiles, or advanced air defense systems (namely the Russian-built S-300) that is expected in Iran soon. Scanning thousands of square miles on a single missions, the on-board sensors can look or "listen" for sites than may support dispersed missile launchers, or a field-deployed S-300 battalion. Such intelligence would be vital for an IAF strike package heading for Iran.

During Sunday's public debut of the Eitan, Israeli Air Force leaders noted that the UAV is "quiet enough" to support covert missions. It's also a safe bet that Israeli engineers (who largely pioneered modern drone technology) made it stealthy as well, through the use of composite materials, IR suppression and other techniques. That would enhance the aircraft's survival prospects during "overland" missions against Iran, flying through the heart of the regime's air defenses.

But, as we've noted in previous posts, detecting and downing a UAV is anything but easy. For almost a decade before Operation Iraqi Freedom, Saddam's fighter pilots chased U.S. Predators over Baghdad, with only marginal success. Since 2007, an American drone known as "The Beast of Kandahar" has been flying from its base in Afghanistan, reportedly against targets in Iran.

Publicly, the Iranians have never claimed to have engaged (or shot down) one of those platforms, which was recently acknowledged by the Air Force as the RQ-170 Sentinel.
Given the confusion that typically reigns in Tehran's air defense system, the lack of success is no surprise, and it's doubtful that Iranian air defense crews would do any better against the Eitan.

Finally, the new Israeli UAV may have one more capability worth mentioning. The Israelis are believed to have a capability similar to the U.S. Rover system, which allows ground units to access real-time information from an overhead drone. That would be particularly helpful for Israeli SOF teams, inserted into Iran as part of a air/land strike against that country's nuclear facilities.

While the IDF has closely guarded its plans for a potential attack on Iran, Israeli officials have sometimes hinted that SOF units would attack Iranian targets campaign; allowing them to "look over the hill" (thanks to the Eitan's sensor suite) would prove invaluable, and improve their chances for success.

4 comments:

What is "Occupation" said...

War is coming...

America, under Obama, has communicated loudly that he will lead by "voting present" and be there only after something has happened...

I really do not have confidence that the USA will do anything to stop Iran from getting a nuke...

In Israel they share this feeling, public comments not withstanding.. Privately it's a different picture.

Israel feels like it is being boxed into a corner...

The world sits by as Hezbollah takes over Lebanon and has rearmed by 400% and has laid fiberglass comm systems that cannot be interfered with. Has built bunkers up to the Northern border of Israel, under the watch and impotent eyes of the UN.

At the same time, Hamas has re-armed and has come out of the Operation Cast Lead with more nations (including some in the obama's whitehouse) calling for talks with Hamas...

At the same time, Syria still quietly builds several sites that the UN is not allowed to visit, while upgrading it's tanks and anti-aircraft missiles (thanks iran for the 2 billion)

At the same time IRAN...

Russia still is intent on delivering the s300's and is completing Iran reactor..

Iran has: launched a solid multistage rocket, complete with animals, stepping up enrichment (when obama started it was 3.5% and 1k centrifuges, now it's 19.8% and thousands), launched a destroyer, kidnapped westerners with impunity, murdered it's own people, helped smuggle weapons into syria, gaza, lebanon...

and now some say yemen...

Israel has been scolded by the world for the separation barrier, the goldstone report, the human rights council....

no israel is feeling alone...

maybe that is obama's plan... get someone else to do the dirty work....

in any case, Israel already is passing out gas masks, getting ready rooms ready...

war is coming..

I just hope Israel takes off the gloves...

Wayne said...

G'day Spook,

You said "detecting and downing a UAV is anything but easy", but does this apply to robust AAA systems? The US lost a few dozen drones in the Balkan theater in 1999 and 2000s, according to the UAV Forum. Granted that those were earlier generations of aircraft, stealth hasn't been applied to UAV's until very recently (Beast of Kandahar). One report I read, which I'm unable to reference in a quick search, was that 42 losses surprised US planners who had discounted the Serbian air defenses, whose Soviet-era technologies and maintenance were already obsolescing.

That wouldn't be the case for Iran's imminent SA-300 deployment, meaning that without more stealth than is reported on this new bird, Israel would face large and quick losses. Don't you think?

RPB said...

Israel will have no problem penetrating the Iranian defenses. In fact, the S300 deployment will be beneficial to Israel - especially if the Iranians heavily rely upon these modern weapons.

Why?

Because Israeli cyber warfare command is far more advanced than many know. If the Iranians deploy these modern systems as the linchpin of defense they will be exposed as they do not understand the complex vulnerabilities these systems have to hacker based shut down.

The Israelis did the same thing to Syria not too long ago. The problem is and will be target identification. Israel simply lacks the intelligence and possibly the planes to strike all the targets at once. No one believes that there is just one or two or six facilities. In all likelihood there are more. Hitting all these targets will be impossible.

No friends, Israel is posturing and hoping the Iranians blink. Israel has no choice but to improve its second strike capability by deploying more cruise missiles on subs, hardening communications and diversifying command & control. Israel is willing to believe in MAD - they have no choice.

Without a doubt, they truly are boxed in a corner. Their only hope is that the threat of a sea of broken glass in Iran stops them.

Let's hope they are correct.

Spook86 said...

Wayne--Your point on UAV losses in the Balkans is well taken; in fact, I helped prepare a major assessment on UAV ops in the conflict and the losses that we suffered.

Without going into a lot of detail (the report is still classified), we found that many of losses were the result of operational predictability. NATO was flying over the same places at the same time (with the same platforms) every day, and the Serbs adjusted, creating ambush points along known routes.

Additionally, because of the limits of sensor packages then available for UAVs, most of the missions were flown during the day, increasing chances for detection and intercept.

Since Operation Allied Force, we've become less predictable in UAV ops, one reason that our losses decreased during Iraqi Freedom.