Sunday, March 11, 2007

Israel unveils new surveillance drone

ONLY THE BEST: Officials said the unmanned aircraft could fly higher, faster and farther than any other drone and hinted it could gather information as far as Iran

Palmahim Air Force Base, Israel: Resembling a huge bird with fixed wings and a mushroom sticking out of its head, Israel's largest unmanned surveillance aircraft flew over a seaside air force base, its promoters claiming it can fly higher, faster and farther than any other drone.

Called the Heron, which describes its wideswept appearance, the drone has already seen combat, searching out Hezbollah arms and directing airstrikes in last summer's war in Lebanon. Its public unveiling on Wednesday appeared to have commercial as well as strategic intent.

Israeli officials said a prototype performed well during the summer war.

They also hinted that the Heron had the potential to reach as far as Iran, considered Israel's most serious strategic threat because of its nuclear program and its president's calls to wipe Israel off the map.

"Its versatility and achievements are on the forefront of the world's technology and will allow us to perform various operational missions," said Major General Eliezer Shkedi, the air force chief, at the ceremony officially bringing the Heron into service. "Today, almost 60 years after the establishment of the state, Israel, the only home of the Jewish people, is still under threat."

With its 16.6m wingspan and ability to fly for as long as 30 hours at a time, at a speed of 225kph and a height of 9,000m, the Heron is Israel's latest and most advanced weapon in the booming field of drone technology, air force officers said.

Israel has used drones since the early 1970s, and its fleet has steadily increased. Air force officials say drones have become such an integral part of Israel's air power in recent years that their flight hours now outnumber those of manned fighter planes.

"Today, as we welcome the Heron, we continue to perform nonstop operational flights in the war against terror," said Lieutenant Colonel H., moments after its rear-facing single propeller lifted the Heron into the sky, a distinctive antenna pod extending from where the cockpit would be in a manned aircraft, its narrow body filled with electronic surveillance equipment.

The Heron squadron commander, who could only be identified by his first initial because of military regulations, spoke as a blue version of the glider-like plane stood on exhibit nearby. A military band played as the plane gracefully took off to a round of applause.

"This is a real breakthrough in the world of unmanned aircraft," he said.

Sales of the new drone were not part of the equation presented at the Wednesday display, but Israel is one of the world's leading arms exporters, and public rollouts often precede sales campaigns.

Israel does not comment on its weapons deals.

Officials said the drone, produced by Israel Aircraft Industries, was the most advanced craft of its kind, far more accurate and effective than any of its predecessors.

For example, it could detect people on the ground and determine whether they were militants or civilians. Grainy, black-and-white aerial video images on display from last summer's war in Lebanon showed Hezbollah guerrillas preparing to launch rockets, with a large X marking their location. Moments later the screen went blank, indicating a direct hit.

Israel would not disclose whether the Heron could be used to carry out airstrikes, but Robin Hughes, the Middle East bureau chief for Jane's Defence Weekly, said it had the ability to carry a significant payload. Palestinians have said Israel has been using drones to fire missiles at Gaza, but the military has not confirmed it.

Hughes said that the Heron was not necessarily a dramatically new development.