On Sunday the Israeli military revealed the latest in a long line of drone technology to come out of this small but extremely well armed nation. As reported by the My Way blog,
The Heron TP drones have a wingspan of 86 feet (26 meters), making them the size of Boeing 737 passenger jets and the largest unmanned aircraft in Israel's military. The planes can fly at least 20 consecutive hours and are primarily used for surveillance and carrying diverse payloads.
In news reports released today, the most highly touted fact concerning the Heron TP line of drones is that due to their large size and fuel capacity that they are in fact capable of reaching the Persian Gulf (i.e. Iran) from Israel. While I am sure that hinting at proof that Israel is gearing up to carry out a military strike against Iran sells newspapers, this is certainly not any such proof. Drones are ideally suited for the irregular warfare that the US and Israel find themselves fighting today. Drones (aka unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)/ unmanned aerial Systems (UAS)) are capable of providing real time video surveillance of the battle space and can alert troops to obstacles and ambushes. They have been especially effective in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan where insurgents may be able to detect them overhead if its a clear day, but simply do not possess the firepower to bring them down. Israel has similarly used drones in Gaza and Lebanon to increase their surveillance of insurgent movements and even to assassinate the occasional terrorist.
Where drones have not proven effective has been in wars against actual states that possess actual militaries. For example when the U.S. deployed drones against Serbia in the 1999 Kosovo War, Serbian missile batteries successfully shot down 42 American drones.
Despite the fact that the Heron TP does look quite like an F-15, it would be nowhere near as effective in a fight against Iran and the Revolutionary Guards. For starters, any military strike on Iran by Israel will surely be targeting its three main nuclear facilities. These facilities are massive and located in concrete reinforced bunkers approximately 75 feet below ground. If Israel was to have any chance of shutting down these targets temporarily they will need to fire bunker buster munitions, which are typically much larger than the hellfire missiles typically attached to drones of this type. The increased size of the Heron TP might suggest that it is equipped to carry much larger payloads, however, for a mission of such importance the Israelis would most certainly not trust it to a remote piloted weapons system. The great thing about actual pilots is the ability to assess situations fast and scramble quickly if need be.
In 2009, CSIS conducted a study of the feasibility of an Israeli strike on Iran. The study concluded that a successful mission would likely have to involve approximately 90 F-15's and F-16's. It is widely believed that Russia has sold Iran an Antey-2500 Mobile Surface to Air Missile (SAM) System capable of firing SA-12 Giants. If Iran does indeed have this sophisticated SAM system, the Israeli's can expect an attrition rate of 20-30% which translates to roughly 20-30 aircraft. Drones would fair much worse against such a weapons system, not to mention the rest of the SAM capabilities the Revolutionary Guard have in their arsenal. Lastly, the Israelis would never fly a Heron TP into Iran for the simple reason that they don't want to risk the technology falling into Iran's hands should it be shot down over their territory, which as I mentioned, would be quite likely.