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Israelis Shoot Down Chinese Aircraft
by James Dunnigan
July 4, 2009

The Israeli Air Force recently held a training exercise where they used Chinese UAVs for target practice. An F-16 pilot went up, located the small UAV, and then shot it down with his 20mm cannon. Finding small UAVs is not easy, either with radar or the naked eye. Once you find them, shooting them down is comparatively easy. The Israelis are concerned about more UAVs coming from Lebanon, where Hezbollah has some.  Thus the very realistic training.

And the UAV threat is very real. Back in November, 2004, the Lebanese based terrorist group Hezbollah sent a small UAV  down Israel's Mediterranean coast, where it flew over an Israeli town for 15 minutes and then flew back into Lebanon. Hezbollah called their UAV "Mirsad 1", but it was actually an Iranian Ababil. The Iranians have been developing UAVs for nearly a decade. Their Ababil is a 183 pound UAV with a ten foot wing span, a payload of about 80 pounds, a cruising speed of 290 kilometers an hour and an endurance of 90 minutes. The Ababil is known to operate as far as 120 kilometers from its ground controller. But it also has a guidance system that allows it to fly a pre-programmed route and then return to the control of its controllers for a landing (which is by parachute). The Ababil can carry a variety of day and night still and video cameras. There are many inexpensive and very capable cameras available on the open market, as is the equipment needed to transmit video and pictures back to the ground.

The Israeli air defense organization was embarrassed by this undetected UAV flight. But it wasn't the first time. In 1987, a Hizbollah commando flew undetected into northern Israel using an ultralight vehicle (somewhat larger than the Ababil), landed near a military camp, and killed six soldiers before he was killed. This led to the upgrading of the air defense system in northern Israel to prevent that sort of thing happening again. Since then, the Israelis have detected other ultralights and small aircraft trying to enter Israel, and stopped them. But during the November 7th flight, the UAV moved at an altitude of under 300 feet, and was the smallest aircraft the Israelis have had to deal with so far. Nevertheless, the Israeli air defenses were apparently supposed to be capable of spotting something like an Ababil UAV.

In April, 2005, another Ababil UAV flew about 30 kilometers into Israel, then turned around and reached Lebanese air space before Israeli fighters could catch up with it. There have been no more Hezbollah attempts to fly UAVs into Israel since.

What the Israelis fear most is low flying Ababils coming south carrying a load of nerve gas, or even just explosives. Using GPS guidance, such a UAV could hit targets very accurately. Moreover, there’s nothing exotic about UAV technology, at least for something like the Ababil. It was no surprise that Iran began using homemade UAVs in the late 1990s. After all, they had received some UAVs from the United States in the 1970s (Firebee target drones.) The Israelis immediately tagged Iran as the supplier of the Hizbollah drone, because Iran has long supplied that terrorist organization with cash, weapons and equipment for decades.

Chinese UAVs are probably good for training Israeli pilots, as they are cheap, and similar to the Iranian Ababil. China is a decade or two behind the West in UAV design. An example of this can be found in one of their most numerous models, the ASN-206/207. This is a 488 pound aircraft, with a 110 pound payload. The 207 model has a max endurance of eight hours, but more common is an endurance of four hours. Max range from the control van is 150 kilometers and cruising speed is about 180 kilometers an hour. A UAV unit consists of one control van and 6-10 trucks, each carrying a UAV and its catapult launch equipment. The UAV lands via parachute, so the aircraft get banged up a lot. A UAV battalion, with ten aircraft, would not be able to provide round the clock surveillance for more than a week, at best. But Chinese planners believe this is adequate. The unit contains repair crews, equipment and spare parts. This UAV can broadcast back live video, and be equipped for electronic warfare.

The Chinese also have several models of smaller UAVs (100-200 pounds), with endurance of 2-4 hours. The lack of persistence (the ability to stay in the air for long periods of time) means the Chinese are unable to use this most important of UAV capabilities. The Chinese are working on new UAVs that are closer to current U.S. designs.

Some Chinese UAVs may eventually show up using Israeli technology. Three years ago, Israeli UAV manufacturer EMIT got busted after it was caught shipping UAV technology to China. EMIT was not a major player in the UAV industry, having only three models (the 1,000 pound Butterfly, 400 pound Blue Horizon, the hundred pound Sparrow). The twenty year old firm has been scrambling to stay in business. The Chinese helped set up a phony cooperative deal in a Southeast Asian country, to provide cover for the transfer of EMIT UAV technology to China. Most of EMITs production is for export, but Israel has agreed to consult with the United States about transfers of technology to China. This is because Israel has been caught exporting military equipment, containing American technology, to China (in violation of agreements with the United States.)


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