About 85% of the UAVs used by the IDF are made by Elbit Systems. Admittedly, Elbit entered the UAV market after Israel Aerospace Industries, but succeeded in establishing a major status in the Israeli (and global) UAV market, mainly with regard to the low and intermediate altitude categories.
Elad Aharonson, Executive Vice President of Elbit Systems and General Manager of the company’s UAS Division, says that Elbit’s UAVs have thus far logged about 400,000 flight hours. It is an enormous figure by any standard. Elbit Systems currently focuses on UAVs in three size categories: the Skylark, in use by the IDF Ground Forces Command, the Hermes 450, in use by both the IDF Ground Forces Command and the Israeli Air Force, and its big brother – the Hermes 900, in use by the IAF.
At the end of the summer of 2012, the IAF imprinted their emblem on the first Hermes 900 UAV, after flying UAVs carrying the Elbit Systems emblem for performance evaluating purposes. The Skylark, Elbit’s smallest UAV, has thus far been sold to some 20 clients worldwide, for the battalion and company echelons. Its IDF designation is ‘Sky Rider’.
“We taught numerous military organizations the importance of a personal UAV for the troops on the ground, and the lesson has been learned,” says Aharonson. At the same time, the IDF would like to acquire a slightly larger UAV for the brigade level. Elbit Systems supplied the Skylark 2 UAV to an IDF project designated SHANI (a Hebrew acronym for “Low Ground Layer”), but a controversy broke out between the IDF Ground Forces Command and the IAF regarding the operation and financing of this particular UAV.
The IAF pulled out of the project, while the IDF Ground Forces Command went ahead, on its own, in the development of a vehicle designated ‘Sky Galloper’. The new vehicle, currently under development, is intended for the brigade echelon. “The SHANI project is currently frozen as the IDF is reviewing a new operational concept,” says Aharonson.
The fact that Elbit Systems is once again engaged in the development of a new UAV raises questions about the future of the UAV designated Skylark 2, which has not been successful. A few years ago, Elbit Systems decided to develop an intermediate UAV with a take-off weight of about 100 kg. It purchased the design for such a UAV from the Israeli company Innocon and designated it the Hermes 90.
What is the current situation regarding the marketing of this UAV?
Aharonson points out that the project is yet to be regarded as a success. “We entered a competition in the US with it, together with General Dynamics, but unfortunately we did not win. However, it is an existing project and I believe the market will eventually discover its capabilities.”
Owing to its dimensions, the Hermes 90 is offered in two configurations: one designed for runway take-off and the other designed for catapult launching, with the catapult providing the UAV with the necessary takeoff speed. The UAV may be fitted with either wheels or skids, according to the operational requirements. “This UAV is highly effective for police forces and for units patrolling borders. It can carry a payload of up to 25 kg and remain airborne for about 15 hours,” adds Aharonson.
Elbit Systems’ two UAV flagship products are the Hermes 450 and Hermes 900. The smaller sibling provides the basis for the UK’s Watchkeeper program – a cooperative effort by the Thales Corporation and Elbit Systems to provide advanced ISTAR UAVs to the British Army Royal Regiment of Artillery. Thales presented a version of the Watchkeeper UAV armed with missiles at various global exhibitions. In general, Palestinian sources claimed that thi armed UAVs have fired at targets in the Gaza Strip in the context of rocket launch prevention and ‘targeted assassination’ operations.
True to its business tradition, Elbit enhances its capabilities through overseas acquisitions. This has been the case with regard to UAV engines, too. The Israeli company acquired a British company specializing in the manufacture of UAV engines based on the Wankel (rotary) engine design, namely – a piston-less engine.
Today, this plant manufactures engines for UAVs sold to foreign clients. At the same time, Elbit Systems established an engine manufacturing plant at the Science Park, on the border between the towns of Rehovot and Ness-Ziona in Israel. The engines manufactured by both plants are improved and upgraded on a regular basis, and older engines are regularly replaced by new ones within the UAV ORBAT of the IAF. The newer engines are quieter and more powerful, in response to the users’ desire to load more and more systems onto the UAVs.
“The upgraded Wankel engine enables our UAVs to take off with more fuel and more systems. The Hermes 450 has been flying since the late 1990s, and is undergoing a continuous development process,” says Aharonson.
In the context of the Watchkeeper program, the British forces selected a configuration that includes two optical payloads and a radar system. This UAV can take off from improvised runways and is fitted with an anti-icing system. Winning the British tender led to the establishment of a joint venture by Elbit Systems and Thales.
This company, U-TACS, currently employs 110 British employees and a few Israelis. Elbit holds 51% of the company’s shares. The project in Britain has generated a lot of interest. Contacts are currently underway between the French and British governments regarding the possibility of a joint project by Elbit Systems and THALES, for the supply of UAVs to the French Army.
When the fighting in Afghanistan intensified and the Taliban’s roadside explosive charges inflicted heavy casualties on coalition forces, they realized that UAVs can be of assistance to them. The British, whose program was still in its initial phases, leased Hermes 450 UAVs and deployed them to Afghanistan. “Since 2007, our UAVs logged about 70,000 flight hours in Afghanistan. This is more than all the other UAVs employed by other member states of the multinational force (other than the U.S.) deployed to that country,” says Aharonson.
According to the General Manager of Elbit Systems’ UAS Division, the Hermes 900 has become an international hit and today, in addition to the IDF, it was ordered by the military forces of four other countries. “We are currently negotiating with other countries that want it. Our main effort is currently aimed at extending the range of payloads that may be installed on the UAV.”
Don’t you think that it is time to stop the UAV wars between the Israeli manufacturers to allow everyone to face the global market more effectively?
“The UAV market is experiencing a tremendous growth. Two main UAV development focal points have emerged in Israel, us and IAI, and that is fine, but the fact that there are four more manufacturers out there is really illogical.”
Are you investing in the development of fuel cells as a substitute to fuel for propelling UAVs?
“The existing fuel cell systems are too heavy and overburden the UAV, which reduces its payload carrying capacity. In the future, if the technology has come of age, we may review it again.”
In addition to the cooperative alliance with the Thales Corporation in the context of the British Watchkeeper program, Elbit Systems has a cooperative alliance in another important market – Brazil. Here, Elbit Systems and the local aircraft manufacture Embraer established the company Harpia to market UAVs in Brazil.
Elbit Systems also has an agreement with Boeing for the marketing of Israeli UAVs in the US market. “The US is a major market, as is the Indian market, which we are trying to enter. In Europe, there has been a decrease owing to the economic crisis, but it will pick up,” says Aharonson.
Are you developing UAVs capable of vertical take-off and landing?
Aharonson says that his division “is considering solutions for naval forces interested in employing UAVs, including VTOL systems, namely – vertical take-off and landing, but others as well.” He refused to elaborate any further. UAVs will remain high on Elbit Systems’ exports list, and it appears that several new models may be expected in the coming years. Some of these new models will be based on highly advanced technologies and feature unexpected capabilities.
The interview and all of the latest news in the field of defense appear in Issue 11 of IsraelDefense Magazine, now available in stores
Elad Aharonson (Photo: Elbit Systems)