Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

Drone Technology Takes Off

Pierre Klochendler

TEL AVIV, Mar 29 2012 (IPS) - The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) held its conference this month in Israel for the first time. Do future wars by land, sea and air belong to robots?

The jumbo Heron TP2 drone. Credit: Pierre Klochendler/IPS.

The jumbo Heron TP2 drone. Credit: Pierre Klochendler/IPS.

The modern battlefield pushes troops to their limit. Infantrymen haul heavy loads on their backs which hinders their combat performance.

The REX field-porter, a robot, might potentially, become the warrior’s best friend – it can now accompany field units in warzones, carrying 200 kg of gear.

Developed by the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the remote-controlled platform is designed to enhance combat performance by increasing field supplies without increasing the soldier’s load.

“The focal point for development of unmanned systems for a long time, Israel punches above its weight,” notes Brett Davis, vice-president of communications at AUVSI.

During the 1973 war, Syrian missile batteries in Lebanon inflicted heavy damage on Israeli fighter jets. A year later, as part of lessons drawn from the war, Israel became the first country to launch a modern unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) programme for real-time surveillance, electronic warfare and decoy.

David Harari pioneered IAI’s UAV programme. “The idea was to build a small system carrying a day camera for real-time information,” the senior consultant explains.

During Israel’s first Lebanon war (1982), UAVs (known as drones) were operated for the first time above the battlefield. Though more conventional observation posts were in use, images and radar decoy provided by the ‘Scout’ drone helped Israeli jets destroy some 30 anti-aircraft missile batteries and more than 80 MIGs. Not a single Israeli jet was downed.

“This was a discovery. Suddenly we’d manage a battlefield four-dimensionally, live,” Harari recalls. “It revolutionised the military doctrine.”

Israeli experts draw their knowhow from military experience. “You’re both a civilian and a reserve soldier,” Harari explains. “My team built the Air Force Intelligence UAV squadron. While involved in military operations, we’d also develop systems.”

“These aren’t lab theoretical systems,” adds Davis. “They’re quickly put into use, honed through experience. The mind focuses on results. The U.S. military goes through a similar experience.”

The U.S. military has been using UAVs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. “The U.S. army has flown the ‘Shadow’ (originally based on an Israeli design) for more than a million hours; the missile-armed ‘Predator’ is used extensively,” Davis stresses.

Emulating the latest variant of the U.S.-made ‘Predator’, the most accurate hunter-killer UAV, the ‘Heron TP2’ is the largest in Israel’s drone arsenal. With a wingspan of 79 feet (the size of a BOEING 737) and a takeoff payload weight of five tons, the jumbo UAV can reach an altitude of 45,000 feet and fly up to 40 hours.

Operational Israeli drones relentlessly patrol the skies over the Gaza Strip, raising ethical concerns regarding ever-changing rules of engagement as they’re blamed for harming civilians.

“Israeli drones are precisely wrong,” human rights groups say about alleged targeted killings by drones of suspected Palestinian militants. “We don’t use armed UAVs,” rejects Harari. Israeli military sources counter that drones are utilised exclusively as support systems – to detect rockets before launch and assess the accuracy of Israeli strikes.

Yet, experts say there’s little doubt that the ‘Heron’ can be configured to carry armament. And, it has the range and autonomy to operate deep behind enemy lines, over Iran for instance. “Thanks to satellite communication systems, the ‘Heron’ has an immense range,” says IAI consultant Dan Bichman, refusing to mention any specific country.

Last month, Israeli defence officials confirmed a 1.6 billion dollars arms deal with Azerbaijan that includes drones, thus bringing Israeli surveillance technology closer to Iran. On Thursday, a Foreign Policy report quoted U.S. officials as saying that Israel has secured access to airbases in Azerbaijan.

“Our role is to provide devices, systems, for information gathering. What the military does, I can’t tell you,” Harari cautions. “But we’ve been asked to develop small and large systems.”

Indeed, drones come in sizes. Take for example the silent, flexible, and easy-to-deploy-and-operate ‘Ghost’, the surveillance weapon of choice for urban warfare; the ‘Bird-Eye’ – a man-portable, catapult- launched, mini UAV for “over the hill” intelligence controlled from a laptop; the ‘Panther’, designed for tactical use, with its tilt-rotor propulsion system that enables vertical takeoffs and landings in rough terrain.

Or, the ‘Searcher’, a multi-mission tactical UAV used for reconnaissance, jets target acquisition, artillery fire adjustment, and counter-terrorism assistance. Some micro-sized spy drones even imitate mosquitoes, or butterflies.

It’s not inconceivable that the next UAV generation will be nano-sized. Says Bichman: “Operational needs push us to develop miniaturised systems.”

What all drones offer is an added value in knowing where the enemy is, and what he does. “UAVs definitely create deterrence,” affirms Bichman.

Though drones enjoy greater automation and singlehandedly combine diverse payloads, the race to satisfy militaries’ demands for ever more advanced pilotless aircrafts laden with such devices as infra-red night vision sensors, “video-in-motion” camera trackers, radar payloads, Vertical Take-Off and Landing capabilities overwhelms the industries’ ability to develop new systems fast enough, experts concur.

Another challenge is defined as “latency” – how to shorten the slight delay between the order sent by the remote pilot to the aircraft and its execution.

Drones technology is exported to 50 countries worldwide and constitutes 25 percent of IAI 3.5 billion dollars annual sales. The backlog for the upcoming years is 10 billion dollars.

The sky’s the limit; Israel’s thriving future belongs to UAVs, Bichman believes. “The potential lies in the civilian market – paramilitary or police uses, maritime surveillance, ferrying cargo, aerial monitoring, movies, etc. We’re just before the great leap forward,” he predicts.

Already now, unmanned vehicles log more flight hours than manned aircrafts; more “pilots” are trained to fly them. So, will joystick operators eventually replace top guns?

“The trend increases constantly,” asserts Davis. “You don’t have to put ‘human’ pilots in dangerous areas. Drones are used for what they’re designed for, as extenders for humans.” And, they’re relatively cheap.

Soon enough, the traditional photo of pilots throwing their berets in the air when earning their wings might become obsolete.

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