From managing hot pursuits of an intelligence target halfway around the world, to real-time intelligence gathering at the scene at a far away location, to the firing of a lethal precision missile at a top terrorist - modern armies no longer consider these unmanned combat systems just expensive toys. Censorship strictly blocks reports about the full use of these apparata by the IDF, but based on the performance of similar systems used by other Western armies - some of which are much less technologically advanced than those used in Israel - it is easy to imagine what is going on.
A few weeks ago, former and current IDF Air Force commanders, defense industry leaders, and senior Ministry of Defense officials gathered for a secret celebration at the Palmachim Air Force Base to mark the 40th anniversary of the Air Force's first UAV squadron, which has become part of the IDF's "long arm". It is not the only UAV squadron. At another base in central Israel, an even more advanced UAV is in operation. It is the cutting edge in IDF unmanned vehicles, capable of reaching any place that the Israeli intelligence community might want to go. Even Iran.
However, Dr. David Harari, the pioneer of Israel's UAV program, did not attend the celebration at Palmachim. He was too busy preparing for an important international conference on unmanned vehicles to take place for the first time in Tel Aviv. Military leaders, developers, well-known aeronautical engineers, investigators, pilots and top executives from leading defense companies from all over the world will come to Israel to see for themselves the weapons powerhouse that has grown in the Middle East, primarily due to the breakthrough in the field of unmanned vehicles.
Dr. Harari, who received the Israel Prize in Engineering from the President and the Prime Minister on Independence Day, is 70 years old, and a former Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) employee, does not forget for a moment how it all began. "When I began working on the UAV program, from home, people at IAI laughed at me and at my staff," he recalls. "This was in the late 1970s and most of the people working at IAI did not believe in me, including the board members. Everyone was focusing on the exciting and prestigious flagship project - the Lavie jet fighter. But - between us - the Lavie was easier to develop. They could have approached Boeing, gotten some inspiration, and built it. At the time, there were no unmanned vehicles anywhere, and we had to make something out of nothing. We were stubborn, even though they made fun of us. They called us children playing with toys. Take a look now where the Lavie is now and where the UAV's have reached.
Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982 was the UAV's first rite of passage, where the first UAV Zahavan (Scout) was used, and the Air Force's appetite was whetted. "The Zahavan could only fly for four hours and it weighed 220 kg. Its camera weighed 25 kg. When we wanted to expand the capabilities of the next UAV, we had to build a new and bigger plane. It's all a matter of evolution."
As a superpower in unmanned vehicles, Israel claims a place of honor at the top of the world's large weapons exporters alongside the US, France, the UK, and Russia. Ministry of Defense data show that Israeli defense industry sales reached $9.6 billion last year. Elbit Systems Ltd. (Nasdaq: ESLT; TASE: ESLT) and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI) (TASE: ARSP.B1), who compete head to head in global markets, are responsible for a large portion of these sales.
In response to questions about what happens now, and how to retain its place at the top of a saturated market, IAI president and CEO Itzhak Nissan said that the world of unmanned vehicles is just like life - you don't look back. "We are always looking forward, searching for new features and new software, those that can push us ahead, and we run forward with them. You have to create a vision, to think quickly, and mainly to decide that there is no time for delay. You have to win. This is how we created an empire, and this is how we are going to remain one."
Following is an overview of a few unmanned vehicles that are under development in Israel:
Land - Guardium
IAI and Elbit Systems jointly set up a venture, Genius, to develop and manufacture the Guardium unmanned land combat vehicle for patrols and other missions. The Guardium can reach a speed of 80 km/h and can carry a payload of up to 300 kilograms, including state-of-the-art sensors and cameras for intelligence gathering. The IDF has been using to patrol the border with the Gaza Strip since 2008.
Elbit Systems president and CEO Joseph Ackerman says, "Unmanned land vehicles is a very difficult field. The world hasn’t yet grasped their potential. The IDF has a few vehicles, but they are 15 years behind the use of UAVs in terms of mass use. We haven’t yet been able to persuade potential foreign customers that these vehicles are worthwhile financially, and it should be remembered that land forces are much more conservative than airmen. All they talk about is procuring hundreds of manned armored vehicles and it hard for them to change their combat doctrine."
Sea - unmanned surface vehicles
Elbit Systems has only displayed its Silver Marlin unmanned surface vehicle (USV) and most Western militaries prefer merely to look, and in these times of defense cutbacks, no one is standing in a queue to invest capital in systems that are unproven in operations. But the company is patient and strongly believes that USVs can carry out a wide range of missions by remote control. The Silver Marlin can locate mines, carry out search and rescue operations, and quickly reach suspicious ships in all sea conditions to provide intelligence about the intentions of their crews.
The Silver Marlin is equipped with Elbit Systems' electro-optical systems for intelligence missions, satellite communications, and weapons systems. The USV's computer command systems were adapted from unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) systems.
Elbit Systems has also developed the Stingray USV, which basically resembles a jet ski, for the protection of seaports and other missions, such as emergency management, damage assessment, and artillery practice against moving targets.
Israel could very well become one of the first countries in the world to use USVs operationally. The Navy's challenges are expanding and becoming more complex, including intercepting flotillas, arms smuggling by sea to Gaza, and enemy infiltration and suicide ships, together with expanding missions in the Red Sea arena, and now the protection of Israel's natural gas discoveries and infrastructures in its special economic zone in the Mediterranean.
Air - hovering Mirages and Bats
The second intifada and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thinking about the future battlefield have spurred development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Current systems are only the beginning. Unmanned hovering vehicles are quiet and stealthy systems that hover of alleyways used by terrorists and provide nearby troops with real-time intelligence on development just around the corner.
IAI has developed the Mirage, a small, silent hovering platform for day and night urban warfare that weighs just four kilograms and has two rotors. It is operated by the infantry or special forces for reconnaissance and surveillance of targets of the enemy, even watching them through the window if they go indoors.
IAI has also unveiled the Bat, a real-time intelligence unmanned hovering platform for ground forces. The Bat's rotors are powered via a cable from a land vehicle, so it has unlimited time in the air. IAI says that the Bat can be deployed within a minute.
For more complex missions, IAI is developing the Cheetah vertical take-off and landing UAV.
Helicopters - Picadors and Flying Mules
"Unmanned helicopters are still pretty basic and a lot still needs to be done," Air Force UAV deputy squadron commander Major Gil told "Globes".
This is about to change. Two Yavne-based companies are developing unmanned helicopters. Aeronautics Ltd. has developed the Picador for naval intelligence and reconnaissance missions. A prototype can be seen at a company hangar. The grey, payload-carrying and oddly shaped machine is far from being a polished finished product ready for marketing.
Urban Aeronautics Ltd., founder Dr. Rafi Yoeli has developed the AirMule for medavac and logistics missions. "The leading cause of death of helicopters is something hitting the rotors," he told "Globes", explaining the unmanned helicopters internal rotor, which enables it to fly along narrow river channels, near buildings, and in forests, and to land and takeoff almost anywhere.
For Yoeli, the AirMule is the answer for evacuating wounded soldiers under fire. The two air-conditioned evacuation cabins are equipped with cameras that send real-time images to the doctors at the landing zone, as well as and microphones.
UAV leaders IAI and Elbit Systems are also battling upstarts like Aeronautics, which are nipping at their heels. Aeronautics's Dominator 2 is based on the AD-42 twin-engine light plane made by Austria's Diamond Aircraft Industries GmbH, which has amassed tens of thousands of operational hours worldwide. Aeronautics CEO Avi Leumi saw its potential and the result is a UAV that weighs two tons - more than double the weight of classic IAI and Elbit Systems UAVs - and can carry a variety of payloads 450 kilometers, spend up to 30 hours in air and reach an altitude of 30,000 feet.
"The platform already had all the necessary certification and we simply added the systems to make it unmanned using the flight management system that we developed," Leumi told "Globes". "This makes it possible to carry out marine reconnaissance and intelligence missions at all ranges using the satellite communications system that we developed."
Aeronautics has set up a production line for the Dominator and is waiting for orders. The IDF, however, prefers two other UAVs. Until the IDF recognizes the potential of Leumi's products, he hopes that he can sell the Dominator to other countries' national security agencies and armies for border patrol, monitoring of sensitive facilities, wide area intelligence, and other missions. But he knows that the way to the hearts of customers in Brazil, Canada, Singapore, and elsewhere is through the IDF, and that the best sales promotion campaign that Israeli defense companies have is the Israel Air Force.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on October 24, 2011
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2011