June 11, 2010:
Although the new Israeli Heron TP (also known as Eitan or Heron 2) UAV officially entered service with the Israeli Air Force three months ago, it got its first operational use recently 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 three years ago, but this was basically a UAV for the export market, and Israel was in no rush to buy it. There have 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 U.S. MQ-9 Reaper (or Predator B), 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 design can be developed in France. This variant is called Harfang ("Eagle"), and three were purchased a year ago, and sent to Afghanistan. Since then, the three UAVs have spent 1,400 hours in the air. That's actually quite low, coming out to about one sortie a week per aircraft. There have been technical problems with the Harfang, and much of the time, only one of the three were available for service. The Harfang usually flies missions of less than 24 hours.
Despite the technical problems with the Harfangs in Afghanistan, France has ordered a fourth one. France has tried to buy Predators, but the waiting list is long, and French troops need UAV support now. 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.