The Israelis have unveiled a type of drone known as Eitan, (“strong” in Hebrew) the size of a Boeing 737. The drone, a Heron TP operated by some NATO countries, is getting a lot of attention in the Middle East media, because its range extends to Iran.
The Heron TP family of drones, of which Eitan is the latest, are designed as surveillance planes. They have a lot of stamina, and Eitan can stay in the air for 24 hours. It has a payload of 1000kg, according to some sources, while others say it can take 1000kg of sensors. The meanings are relevant, because there's a big difference between a combat load of that size and cameras.
The furor about its range is based on the ongoing “debate” about whether Israeli planes can reach Iran. The Iranians say they can’t, the Israelis say they can. This fascinatingly unproductive debate has somehow managed to overlook the fact that any combat plane can refuel in the air. Hence the great interest in the long range drone.
In point of fact, systems like Eltan are much more effective as spotters than they can be as combat aircraft. They can’t evade interceptors, with a low airspeed of 207kmh (130 mph). This one, however, has advanced thermal and other sensors which could operate as a source of targeting data for an attack.
In practice, most drones operate as advanced reconnaissance, and the portable drones, little things with good real time cameras, are getting some respect and affection from the grunts in Afghanistan because of their reliability and saving a lot of extra sore feet on patrols.
Al Jazeera has an article which is a bit more focused than other regional news on the subject. The topic of an attack on Iran more or less drowns out other information.
The actual information on public offer appears to come from a brief broadcast on intel.livetv, and it’s not very long, or very specific. This YouTube video, with Eitan at the start, contains most of the "news" which is getting sprayed around the world with such uninformative zeal.
Wikipedia has more specifications which are better definitions of Eitan’s actual functions. More importantly, the Wikipedia article’s also related to the commercial prospects of this potentially very useful plane, which appears to be one of the primary drivers of its sudden rise to fame.
Israel Aerospace Industries is exporting versions of these planes. The long range and high sensor payloads create a different type of operational paradigm for many services, allowing for prolonged surveillance, and apparently much more information in terms of types of data it can acquire. Eitan has a distant cousin in the form of the American Global Hawk, a long range, high yield drone which can be adapted to a range of functions including theoretical combat capabilities, but it’s not configured or powered like a Global Hawk.
This is a medium range plane, and its most likely combat role would be supporting ground forces and assisting some air operations, which it appears to be equipped to do very effectively. It’s not designed as a natural participant in combat. It has no obvious hard points, and a single prop driven plane would require some modifications to lug any weapon with major combat capability long ranges for 24 hours. In missions outside Israel it would need to operate under the wing of the air superiority of the Israeli Air Force.
The YouTube video is mainly newsworthy for its comprehensive documentation of the fact that nobody in the Middle East seems to be able to get out of the unproductive cliché conflict mode of the last nearly 70 years. The comments on the thread are more revealing than the video. Eitan is seen as a direct threat, whether it is one or not. It’s supposed to be able to “hit” Iran.
That’s not its natural role.
To give an example: The Australian Defence Force intends to lease 2 Eitans. There’s a good operational concept involved. The Royal Australian Navy and Air Force have been wearing out equipment and budgets on surveillance for a decade or more. Long, expensive missions covering our long, extensive shores, and finding the lucky providers of people smugglers’ incomes in their dangerous, unseaworthy boats needs to be much more cost effective. Eitan is perfectly capable of doing that.
We can stop sending Orions all over the Indian Ocean, and our surface ships all around it, to home in on the boats. Eitan will save time, money and lives, all in large numbers. It can also conduct assigned reconnaissance missions, and provide our grunts with good quality information and equally good economics.
In civilian operations, Eitan could well become one of the most effective search and rescue platforms ever developed. Stamina is one of the main issues in search and rescue, and planes can’t stick around like drones. The costs are phenomenal. So far from being a “weapon”, it’s likely to become a lifesaver.