June 23, 2012:
For the last three years, the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) has been leasing Israeli Heron Shoval UAVs for use in Afghanistan. The RAAF actually rents the Herons by the hour and in the last three years have bought 10,000 hours of flight time, using 19 Herons. Total cost per hour in the air for a Heron is over $20,000. That includes the services of ten people per UAV as operators (of the aircraft and equipment onboard) as well as ground support personnel. In the last three years, the Australian military has spent over half a billion dollars on UAV operations for all three services.
The Heron Shoval UAV is 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.
About half the time RAAF Herons were used for surveillance of a village or remote compound to determine if the Taliban were operating there and if the place was worth a visit by ground troops. The rest of the time Herons were directly supporting ground troops. While the Herons were not armed, the UAV operators called in warplanes (with missiles and smart bombs), artillery, or American UAVs that carried missiles.
The RAAF also used Herons to sniff out Taliban using hand-held radios and use that to uncover what the enemy was up to. The Herons carry laser designators, so they can mark a target with the laser and have a missile or smart bomb delivered by a nearby manned aircraft.