A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Droning on About Drones: Israel's "Iran-Capable" Heron TP

A few days ago there was a flurry of reporting about Israel's introduction of a new, large-bodied unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which the press likes to call a drone, namely the Heron TP. Here's the video:

Now, if you do a little googling you'll find that half the newspapers played this as "Israel unveils drone that can reach Iran." Well, yeah. But it was "unveiled" in the sense that it's become operational. Its existence has been reported for some time; its Hebrew name is Eitan. It's big, though there are questions about it being the world's biggest UAV. As far back as Vietnam the US was using remotely piloted fighter aircraft, and apparently the Global Hawk has a bigger wingspan.

One of the few commenters not to jump on the "can reach Iran" bandwagon is Jeremy White at Huffington Post in this piece, "Israel's New Drone Not for Use Against Iran." Generally he makes the important points — it's slow-moving, vulnerable to air defenses, and probably can't carry the heavy bunker-buster munitions you'd need to take out hardened Iranian nuclear facilities. His article is spoiled a bit by the phrase "Despite the fact that the Heron TP does look quite like an F-15 . . ." It looks less like an F-15 than this overweight 62-year-old white-haired blogger looks like George Clooney. No one with even marginal eyesight could mistake it for an F-15. Watch the video above.

Still, the points made are good. This thing would have to fly over either Turkey (and Turkish-Israeli relations are bumpier than they've been for years) or Iraq or Saudi Arabia. And it's highly vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. We use Predators against the Taliban because they don't have any air defense. It's slow and cumbersome. It probably can't carry anything like the ordnance required to take out hardened underground sites. Iran can relax: iuf Israel attacks, this won't be the vehicle. Though I'm sure the decision to publicize it at this time was intended to create the illusion it was intended for Iran.

In fact, the Israelis were true pioneers in the UAV field. While the US Armed Forces spent much of the 1980s and early 1990s developing some basic ancestors of the Predator, both Israel Aircraft Industries and Tadiran had cobbled together two functional UAV's prior to the 1982 war in Lebanon. They were pretty much wooden remote-controlled hobby aircraft with cameras and downlinks, but they did the job.

But I think Iran needn't worry about the Eitan/Heron TP. That doesn't mean Israel isn't going to strike, but this is a red herring. Or red Heron.

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