The Israel Air Force is working to upgrade the range and capabilities of its long-range strategic Eitan drone, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
According to Lt.-Col. S., commander of the 210 “White Eagle” Eitan Squadron, the new upgrades will bring the drone to the scale of Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk, a high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) unmanned aircraft system used by the US Air Force and Navy since 2001. “Everything about the next generation Eitan is bigger and better,” said Eitan UAV Operator Lt. T., as IAF technicians worked on the aircraft at the Tel Nof Air Base near Rehovot.
“To get a new generation of the drone has a big impact on the squadron,” he said, explaining that it will be another several months before the improved aircraft are ready to start trial flights.
Also known as the Heron TP, the Eitan was inducted into the Israel Air Force in February 2010 and are its most advanced UAVs with triple redundancy in all avionic systems. It can remain airborne for close to 40 hours; has a maximum take-off weight of 5,300 kg.; and a payload of 1,000 kg. Able to fly at altitudes of more than 41,000 feet, the drone, which can operate in all weather conditions, is used for surveillance, intelligence gathering, battle damage assessment and target acquisition.
According to Lt.-Col. S., who could not specify what height the upgraded drone would be able to reach, the Air Force and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. are constantly updating the aircraft. IAI declined to comment on the reports.“The advantage of this drone is that it can last longer in the air and collect extremely precise intelligence,” Lt.-Col. S. told the Post from his base in central Israel.
The “Eitan” has a wingspan of approximately 26 meters (similar to that of a Boeing 737) but, according to Lt. T, the upgraded drone will be bigger.
For comparison, the Global Hawk has a wingspan of 39.9 meters; can fly at heights of 60,000 ft. (18.3 km.); has a gross takeoff weight of 14,600 kg.; and a payload of 1,360 kg.
Flight Global news reported in August that Northrop Grumman was planning to upgrade the Global Hawk to meet the requirements of the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) for a high-altitude, long endurance UAV equipped with a high-energy laser that could destroy an intercontinental ballistic missile in the boost phase.
Although the IAF does not comment on reports that the Eitans used by the 210 Squadron can be armed, its ability to fly distances of up to 7,500 km. at significantly high altitudes while relaying precise information makes it a likely option should Israel decide to carry out strikes in enemy countries.
According to Lt. S., the unmanned Eitan are more flexible than fighter planes.
“You can’t always send fighter jets to places the Eitan can go,” he said.
The Eitan, which saw combat action during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 even before it was formally absorbed by the IAF, was used extensively during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014 along with IAI’s Super Heron, also known as the Shoval.
Equipped with satellite datalink and electro-optical infrared sensors, the Eitan is able to not only provide reconnaissance to ground forces in combat situations but also is able to create movement profiles.
“We always say we start the war two weeks before and finish two weeks later,” said Lt.-Col. S. “We begin collecting intelligence before fighting breaks out and then after the fighting has finished we collect intelligence to assess the damage inflicted on our enemy.”