The Israeli Air Force revealed that it had started using a new UAV called Spark but would not say much more because it had lots of new features and capabilities far in advance of any existing Israeli military UAVs. That means Spark is not for export and probably won’t be for some time. All that was revealed were weight, which is 55 kg (121 pounds,) and its five meter (16 feet) wingspan. These characteristics would be obvious to anyone who saw Spark in action and knew something about UAV construction and operation. Spark is described as being far more capable than other UAVs of its weight class. Details of these capabilities (sensors, communications) are often kept secret for as long as possible to deny potential enemies’ information they can use to reduce a new UAVs effectiveness. Spark is assigned to the 144th squadron of the Israeli Air Force. This is their only squadron equipped with nothing but UAVs and was created in 2022 by replacing all the manned aircraft in a squadron and replacing them with UAVs.
Until recently, Israel was very secretive about its UAV operations. Yet for over twenty years Israel was covertly using missile armed UAVs to carry out attacks outside Israel. Inside Israel, attacks from Gaza, Lebanon or Syria were handled with helicopter gunships, jet fighters, artillery and occasional commando raids. Secrecy is a common practice when it comes to Israeli military operations, especially those in retaliation for Islamic terrorist or state-sponsored attacks on Israel, Israelis or Jews in general. Evidence slowly piled up that the “unidentified UAVs” were Israeli, usually of photos taken of the UAVs, plus the targets always seemed to be someone Israeli was sort of at war with. In some of these attacks debris of the missiles was collected and this indicated they were Israeli. The Israelis did use their Spike and other missiles for these attacks. More recently the armed UAVs have been carrying GPS guided bombs. These have the advantage of being silent and the UAV can be high enough to not be heard. When surprise and a bigger bang is required, this is the way to go. Moreover, Israel designs and manufactures guided bombs that have more features than the popular American JDAM. One such feature is a video-camera in the nose that enables the UAV operator (in Israel, operating via a satellite link) to hit a specific, or moving target down there.
As the years went by the Israeli armed UAVs were used more frequently and not all of them were large fixed wing models. Some were quadcopters carrying explosives and sometimes traveled to specific GPS coordinates so that they were immune to signal jamming. These quadcopters were launched from areas outside Israel and were often used in groups. These swarms are sometimes used against targets in Iran. This infuriates the Iranians because it means Iranians are cooperating with the Israelis. In Iran, growing anger towards the corrupt religious dictatorship has led Iranians to cooperate with Israel in carrying out attacks against unpopular projects. The quadcopters and explosives are smuggled in via Azerbaijan, an oil-rich nation which shares a border with Iran and is a major customer for Israeli weapons and much else. The Azeris are Moslem Turks who have long feuded with the Iranians. These attacks in Iran are denied and the Azeris say nothing.
Israel tends to deny nearly all air strikes. In some cases, the denial is accurate but in most cases it was an Israeli attack, with the implied assurance there will be more unless the target nation ceases its violence against Israel. What caused Israel to go public with its use of armed UAVs was the growing use of such attacks by army units during major operations. So many Israeli soldiers are involved that it is a difficult secret to keep. The military now admits that about 80 percent of its flight hours are by unmanned aircraft.
For example, in 2015 Israel formed a new UAV unit to improve cooperation between combat brigades and their supporting artillery. This new unit uses Hermes 450 UAVs operated by soldiers trained to act as a very effective link between ground units, especially infantry, and any artillery units within range. The object of this is to speed up the time between which a target is spotted and artillery can hit it with shells or rockets. Tests showed that UAV operators linked to infantry and artillery units, and familiar with how both services operated, could not only spot potential targets and call in artillery fire very quickly, but also confirm targets the infantry wanted to hit and get fire on those targets within minutes. In the past troops on the ground could call in fire on targets they could see, but since 2005 the infantry has gotten their own small UAVs which often spotted targets beyond the view of the artillery spotters and, unless an artillery spotter was looking over the shoulder at the UAV operator’s control console, he could not confirm the target and call in fire. After trying several alternatives, it was decided that the Hermes 450s, using operators trained to call in fire and linked electronically to both infantry and artillery units, was the best solution. The artillery UAV operators can also share what they see with nearby infantry commanders if that is needed to confirm a target only visible from the air.
The artillery UAVs were only the latest Israeli use of UAVs. For example, in 2014 Israel replaced the last of its AH-1 helicopter gunships with armed UAVs (Hermes 450s). There was already a plan in place for the AH-1s to be replaced by AH-64 gunships, which Israel already had 44 of but even the AH-64s are facing competition from the UAVs and it was decided that replacing the AH-1s with UAVs was more affordable and effective.
By 2015 Israel had a fleet of over 70 large (more than a quarter ton) UAVs. Israel was, next to the United States, the heaviest user of large (Predator size) UAVs on the planet, mainly because the aircraft are regularly used for border security and counter-terror operations. The AH-1 and artillery UAV decision makes it possible to further expand the UAV force.
The most common large UAVs used by Israel are Heron, Hermes and Searcher. The Hermes 450 has long been the primary UAV for the Israeli armed forces, and twenty or more were in action each day during the 2006 war in Lebanon. That led to an expansion of the Hermes fleet. The Hermes 450s is a 450 kg (992 pound) aircraft with a payload of 150 kg. It can also carry Hellfire missiles, is 6.5 meters (20 feet long) and has an 11.3 meter (35 foot) wingspan. It can stay in the air for up to 20 hours per sortie, and fly as high as 6,500 meters (20,000 feet). The Hermes 900 UAV is similar in size (and appearance) to the American Predator (both weighing 1.1 tons), but the Israeli vehicle is built mainly for endurance. It has a 10 meter (31 foot) wingspan. The Hermes 900 can stay in the air for 36 hours, and has a payload of 300 kg (650 pounds). The Searcher 2 is a half-ton aircraft with an endurance of 20 hours, max altitude of 7,500 meters (23,000 feet) and can operate up to 300 kilometers from the operator. It can carry a 120 kg (264 pound) payload.
The Heron I was very successful because it was similar to the American MQ-1 Predator and cheaper as well. In 2014 there was a major upgrade called Super Heron. This consisted mainly of a more powerful (200 HP versus 115 HP) engine that increased cruising speed to 210 kilometers an hour, and provided a faster climb rate with greater maneuverability. Super Heron had a larger payload of 450 kg (990 pounds) and could stay in the air for 45 hours. Because of this Super Heron was sold as a strategic surveillance UAV because it could carry more sensors, fly higher, longer and farther. Super Heron was better able to fly along the borders of another country and monitor what was going on more than a hundred kilometers deep in foreign territory. While performing maritime surveillance Super Heron could monitor a larger ocean area from that higher altitude and spend more time over water. One side effect of this switch to UAVs was that the military needed fewer pilots, who take longer to train and often leave soon to take jobs with commercial airlines. Ground based operators for UAVs are easier to train and, so far, not lured away by offers of commercial work.