June 6, 2014:
Israel recently revealed that it is replacing its fleet of 33 elderly AH-1 helicopter gunships with armed UAVs. Actually this has been going on for some time, Israel has just kept quiet about the change. It all began in April 2013 when Israel briefly grounded its 30 or so AH-1 helicopter gunships. The AH-1 suffered a rotor failure and both crewmen died in the crash. The grounding was lifted when it was discovered that the rotor failure was a unique event and not part of a flaw found in all the AH-1s. But at the same time air force planners pointed out that UAVs were increasingly being sent to carry out surveillance missions long handled by the AH-1s. Moreover, the UAVs could stay in the air longer (over 12 hours compared to about 90 minutes for the AH-1s) and were cheaper to operate and did not expose Israeli pilots to danger. So the air force decided to stop using the AH-1s (except for emergencies) and see if UAVs could effectively replace the choppers. The UAVs could and did.
Israel began buying AH-1s after the 1973 war and used them successfully against Syria in 1982 and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon as well as against Palestinian terrorists. Much upgraded there was already a plan in place for the AH-1s to be replaced by AH-64 gunships, which Israel already has 44 of but even the AH-64s are facing competition from the UAVs.
Israel currently has a fleet of over 60 large (more than a quarter ton) UAVs. Israel is the heaviest user of large (Predator size) UAVs on the planet, mainly because the aircraft are regularly used for border security and counter-terror operations. The AH-1 decision makes it possible to further expand the UAV force.
The most common UAVs used Heron, Hermes and Searcher. The Hermes 450 is the primary UAV for the Israeli armed forces, and twenty or more were in action each day during the 2006 war in Lebanon. This is a 450 kg (992 pound) aircraft with a payload of 150 kg. It can also carry Hellfire missiles and is 6.5 meters (20 feet long) and has an 11.3 meter (35 foot) wingspan. It can stay in the air for up to 20 hours per sortie, and fly as high as 6,500 meters (20,000 feet). The Hermes 900 UAV is similar in size (and appearance) to the American Predator (both weighing 1.1 tons), but the Israeli vehicle is built mainly for endurance. It has a 10 meter (31 foot) wingspan. The Hermes 900 can stay in the air for 36 hours, and has a payload of 300 kg (650 pounds). The Searcher 2 is a half-ton aircraft with an endurance of 20 hours, max altitude of 7,500 meters (23,000 feet) and can operate up to 300 kilometers from the operator. It can carry a 120 kg (264 pound) payload.
Heron I is a 1.45 ton aircraft similar to the American MQ-1 Predator. Israel also has a few (less than six apparently) very long range UAVs. These Heron TP UAVs are 4.6 ton aircraft that can operate at 14,000 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. The TP is used for long range missions, most of which are not discussed in the media.
Israel exports most of these UAVs, largely because they are all very much “combat proven”.