The IDF is adding a new “layer” in the operation of its UAVs. The new layer, whose initials are LTL (Low Terrestrial Layer), is intended for UAVs weighing about 150 kilograms and carrying a 50 kilogram payload. “Elbit Systems” was the only one that approached the tender for this specification, which began advanced development, in conjunction with the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and the IDF’s ground forces, after the first two UAVs passed flight tests in a brigade exercise, at the end of 2010.
The new aircraft is expected to become operational sometime in 2012, when it joins the IAF and takes on ground forces’ missions at the brigade level.
“An increase in hundreds of percent”
Israel has been seen as a global UAV superpower for years, and more than 30 types of unmanned aircraft, manufactured in Israel’s armaments industry, operate in dozens of armies around the world. The number of UAV flight hours in the IDF increased by hundreds of percent over the past decade. The UAVs operate in four main layers.
A “Heron 2” UAV (the “Eitan”) developed by the Israeli Aerospace Industry (IAI), is similar in size to a Boeing 737 and operates at the highest layer. The “Eitan”, which was initially developed for intelligence purposes, has a wingspan of no less than 26 meters and maximum cruising height of 45 thousand feet. This allows for 36 consecutive hours of aerial presence. The IAF inaugurated an “Eitan” squadron in February 2010.
The “Heron 1” aircraft (“Shoval”, IAI), designed to replace the veteran “Searcher” aircraft in intelligence gathering, has been flying at a lower level since 2007. “Shoval’s” maximum cruise height is 30 thousand feet and its wingspan is 16.6 meters.
There are two types of aircrafts that operate in the layers that the air force uses for cooperation with the artillery corps. One is the “Hermes 450”, manufactured by “Elbit Systems”, and has been flying in the higher “ground” layer since the middle of the last decade. Its length is 6.1 meters, its wingspan - 10.5 meters, weight - 450 kgs, and it can carry a payload of 150 kilograms. Its maximum flying range is 200 kilometers while under ground control and about a thousand miles under satellite control. The aircraft is mostly used at the division level. The other UAV, whch is being developed at “Elbit Systems” these days, is the “Hermes 900”, which will perform similar tasks with a greater cargo-carrying capacity, as well as increased flight range.
Another “Elbit Systems” project - “Skylark 1” (“Sky Rider”) - is intended primarily for the tactical echelon (brigade- and company-level assignments) in urban combat. Company commanders can send these UAVs on missions at an altitude of 500 feet, with operational radius of about ten kilometers, for two continuous hours. The “Sky Rider” weighs approximately six kilograms and its wingspan is two meters. If necessary, it can be flown after 15 minutes of preparations. The artillery corps began operating twenty “Sky Rider” teams in 2010 and more are scheduled to enter operational service in the coming year.
Following a recent decision to procure the “Skylark 2”, the aircraft will be flown between the “Hermes 450” and “Hermes 900” layer and the tactical “Skylark 1” layer, according to IDF plans. At this layer, as with the “Sky Rider’s” altitude, there are no weather limitations, since the aircraft operate mostly under the cloud layer.
It should be noted that in addition to the primary UAVs, in the four main operational layers, other IDF UAVs engage in other tasks. The navy, for example, has an unmanned helicopter (manufactured by “Aeronautics”) on “Sa’ar 5-class corvette” missile ships. The helicopter UAV takes off from the deck for missions at ranges of tens of kilometers.
The IDF is currently examining the possibility of using UAVs in a wide variety of tasks, such as medical evacuation of lightly injured troops from the battlefield.
A senior IAF source told IsraelDefense that “the trend toward an increased use of UAVs is clear, and the aircraft growth rate is far more than linear. In general, UAVs are not designed to carry out tasks that manned aircraft can do, but rather tasks that require air presence of several hours or assignments in high-risk zones, where manned aircraft could be compromised”.
A senior defense ministry source says that “Israel is truly a global UAV superpower, together with the United States”. He notes that the Israeli-made UAVs have been sold to dozens of countries. As part of a $400 million deal for “Heron” aircraft, signed by Israel Aerospace Industries and Russia, in late 2010, Israel will assist Russia in setting up the infrastructure for future locally produced UAVs. Turkey has been equipped with several new “Herons” in recent weeks, as part of a deal with IAI that was signed before the current diplomatic crisis.
Germany began operating “Heron” UAVs in 2010 on intelligence missions in Afghanistan. The aircraft are basically on loan to Germany, and payment for them is according to flight hours. Negotiations are underway for Germany to purchase the “Herons”.
“Skylark 2”, in testing flights (Photo: Elbit Systems)