August 13, 2012
Credit: Credit: Rheinmetall
David Fulghum Palmachim AB, Israel
Between Iran's nuclear ambitions and Syria's civil war, no country has a more compelling need for long-range intelligence than Israel. It therefore comes as no surprise that the Israelis are expanding their surveillance reach with a new military organization called “Depth Command” that relies heavily on long-endurance unmanned aircraft.
A similar, long-range reconnaissance mission was being conducted by a stealthy, U.S.-operated, Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel flying out of Afghanistan when it crashed in Iran. Israel is flying both larger and smaller UAVs on Depth Command missions. They include Heron 1s operated by 200 Sqdn. from Palmachim AB south of Tel Aviv. Its tasks include monitoring disputed gas fields and ship traffic in the Mediterranean. Pinpointing missile and rocket launch sites in Gaza, Lebanon and the Sinai is another task.
In fact, twin-boom Heron 1s were photographed monitoring the fighting in Syria, but whether they were Turkish or Israeli aircraft is unknown. Both countries operate the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI)-built Heron 1 and the Elbit-designed Hermes 450. The latter has been used as a rocket-firing, strike platform in other conflicts. The strike capability, and training to use it efficiently, are quietly offered by some Israeli companies.
The seven-month-old Depth Command was set up to coordinate long-range operations deep in enemy territory and to take advantage of highly trained special forces and new technologies such as long-range UAVs equipped with multifunction sensors and weapons. Boeing's MV-22 was considered for the Depth Command mission but was abandoned for being too costly.
The organization's leader—Maj. Gen. Shai Avital, the former chief of the Sayeret Matkal special force—was brought out of retirement for the post. Interdiction of supplies being shipped to Arab militants is a key goal. Missions that destroyed arms convoys in Sudan that were being smuggled from Iran to militants in Egypt's Sinai have been linked to the large Heron TP, which is flown by a different squadron.
The Persian Gulf and Iran are both within range of the 20-hr.-endurance fleet of Heron TPs. Brig. Gen. Amikam Norkin, the Israeli air force's new chief of operations, notes that the unmanned aircraft is versatile and can be adapted to new missions. Other senior IAF officials contend that both the Heron 1 and Heron TP will be able to conduct new missions as they become relevant. The Elbit-made Hermes 450 and Heron TP are thought to carry air-to-ground weapons to shorten the time between target detection and strike.