Warplanes: The Great Predator Shortage

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July 23, 2011:  The American Predator UAV has been so successful in action that many foreign nations have been trying to obtain them. But nearly all Predator production since September 11, 2001 has gone to American troops, and a few U.S. allies. But there are other, and similar UAVs out there that have provided adequate substitutes. The most prominent of these are the Israeli Heron and Hermes.

The most successful has been the Israeli Heron Shoval UAVs, which are very similar to the Predator A (or MQ-1), and is selling well to foreign customers who cannot obtain the MQ-1. In addition to being one of the primary UAVs for the Israeli armed forces, India, Turkey, Russia, France, Brazil, El Salvador, the United States, Canada and Australia have either bought, leased or licensed manufacture of the Heron.

The Heron Shoval weighs about the same (1.2 tons) as the Predator, and has the same endurance (40 hours). Shoval has a slightly higher ceiling (10 kilometers/30,000 feet, versus 8 kilometers) and software which allows it to automatically take off, carry out a mission, and land automatically. Not all American large UAVs can do this. Both Predator and Shoval cost about the same ($5 million), although the Israelis are willing to be more flexible on price. The Shoval does have a larger wingspan (16.5 meters/51 feet) than the Predator (13.2 meters/41 feet) and a payload of about 137 kg/300 pounds.

Then there is the new Israeli Heron TP (also known as Eitan or Heron 2), which is similar to the American Reaper (MQ-9, or Predator B). The TP entered service with the Israeli Air Force last year, where it got its first operational use off the coast of Gaza, apparently keeping an eye on ships seeking to run the blockade. For that kind of work, the aircraft is well suited.

Development of the Heron TP was largely completed four years ago, but this was basically a UAV for the export market, with Israel in no rush to buy it. There have since been some export sales, and the Israeli air force eventually realized that this was an ideal UAV for long range operations, or for maritime patrol.

Equipped with a powerful (1,200 horsepower) turboprop engine, the 4.6 ton Heron TP can operate at 14,500 meters (45,000 feet). That is, above commercial air traffic, and all the air-traffic-control regulations that discourage, and often forbid, UAV use at the same altitude as commercial aircraft. The Heron TP has a one ton payload, enabling it to carry sensors that can give a detailed view of what's on the ground, even from that high up. The endurance of 36 hours makes the Heron TP a competitor for the MQ-9, which is the same size as Heron. The big difference between the two is that Reaper is designed to be a combat aircraft, operating at a lower altitude, with less endurance, and able to carry a ton of smart bombs or missiles. Heron TP is meant mainly for reconnaissance and surveillance, and Israel wants to keep a closer, and more persistent, eye on Syria and southern Lebanon.

The Heron TP was sold to France, to serve as a Predator substitute, until a new French design can be developed. This variant is called Harfang ("Eagle"), and three were purchased two years ago, and sent to Afghanistan. The Harfang usually flies missions of less than 24 hours. France ordered a fourth one. France had tried to buy Predators, but the waiting list is long, and French troops needed UAV support right away. European aircraft manufacturers have yet to come up with a world class UAV design (like the American Predator and Reaper, or the Israeli Heron, etc.) Israel stands by to supply tried and tested designs like the many models of the Heron.

Another advantage the Heron is developing is the aftereffects of all the combat experience it is getting, particularly in Afghanistan. This is making the Heron a long-term competitor to all models of the Predator.

 


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