Air Weapons: Israeli Solutions To Modern Air Defenses

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October 5, 2021: In August India ordered 120 of the new Israeli Skystriker loitering munition UAVs. This contract is worth $13.7 million. The Skystriker will be manufactured in India at a joint Israel-India owned plant.

The Skystriker is basically a small (35 kg/77 pound), very quiet propeller driven cruise missile with a two hour endurance and capable of autonomous or operator controlled movement. Skystriker is launched from a catapult mounted on a vehicle. If Skystriker, with five to ten kg (11-22 pounds) of explosives on board, does not find a target it can return and land, using a small parachute, for reuse.

In early 2019 Israel released a video from one of its Skystriker loitering missiles as it destroyed a Russian made Pantsir mobile anti-aircraft system in Syria. Earlier in the year an older Israeli loitering munition, the Harop (Harpy 2) had also destroyed a Pantsir system in Syria.

India has been using similar Israeli loitering munitions for over a decade. In early 2018 India ordered another 54 Harop UAVs from Israeli firm IAI. India already had 110 of these and was obviously pleased with their performance. India purchased the first 110 of them back in 2009 for about $910,000 each, soon after Harop was introduced for SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) and other dangerous work. Skystriker was developed by Elbit, an IAI competitor. IAI also calls Harop Harpy 2 because it introduced the original Harpy in the 1990s. Harpy 2 (Harop) came along in 2006 and Skystriker in 2017.

Pantsir is the latest Russian mobile anti-aircraft system. It was introduced in 2012 and offered to export customers as an effective defense against UAVs, helicopters and low-flying aircraft. Syria was where Pantsir first saw combat and losses to Harop and Skytriker were bad for sales but not a major boost for the Israeli loitering munitions because the Pantsir export customers were usually Moslem countries.

Each Pantsir-S1 vehicle carries radar, two 30mm cannon, and twelve Tunguska missiles. The 90 kg (198 pound) Tunguska has a twenty-kilometer range while the Pantsir-S1 radar has a 30-kilometer range. The missile can hit targets at up to 8,400 meters (26,000 feet) high. The 30mm cannon is effective up to 3,200 meters (10,000 feet). The vehicles used to carry all the Pantsir-S1 can vary, but the most common one used weighs 20 tons and has a crew of three.

Skystriker was designed to improve on the popular features of Harpy and Harop and do it at less cost per UAV. Its most direct competitor was Harop, which didn’t see combat until early 2016. Harop is a small hybrid design UAV that can either be used for reconnaissance multiple times or once as a cruise missile. Harop is a conventional small aircraft with a cranked delta wing and its propeller in the rear. Harop is actually a UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) controlled by a remote operator and capable of flying more than 1,000 kilometers or loitering for up to 6 hours while carrying a 23 kilogram (51 pound) high explosive warhead. It can be launched from an aircraft or from a sealed storage/launch container mounted on vehicles or ships.

Developed in 2005 from the earlier (1990s) Harpy, Harop improved on the original design by achieving better performance because it is a little longer with added outer wing extensions and a canard. Harop is 2.5 meters (8 feet, 2 inches) long, has a 3 meter (9 feet, 10 inches) wingspan and weighs 135 kg (298 pounds). Top speed is 185 kilometers (115 miles) per hour.

Harop was exported to India, Turkey and Germany. Unlike the original Harpy design, which was primarily designed to operate autonomously on SEAD missions, the Harop was designed to either operate autonomously (like many UAVs) or under remote control. When operating autonomously it cannot be jammed and it is sent out to detect and home in on radar signals from specific types of enemy air defense radars. In this respect it is like the classic HARM anti-radiation missile, using an anti-radar homing system to cripple enemy air defenses. Unlike Harpy, Harop can also be remotely controlled. This enables the operator to find and select static or moving targets using an onboard vidcam or FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) heat-sensing camera. While under remote control targets can be hit whether their radar is on or not. The remote control operation uses line-of-sight communications that are effective at up to 150 kilometers from the operator. That range can be extended using another aircraft or UAV to relay the control signals farther.

Even when sent out with a warhead Harop can return and land if it did not find a target and be reused. Harop also has a stealthy design which, in addition to its small size and quiet engine, makes it very difficult to detect by radar or infrared (heat detecting) sensors. This stealth feature was meant mainly for SEAD missions because most air defense systems have sensors meant to detect approaching hostile aircraft. If these sensors detect an approaching unidentified aircraft the radar can be promptly turned off to avoid a HARM missile or other SEAD airstrike. Modern HARM missiles get around that by capturing the location of a radar signal and then homing in on where it came from, not the signal itself.

 


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