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.