The Israeli Air Force is renowned as a ferociously effective defender of its country. Its pilots are amongst the most professional in the world, and it operates the most up-to-date aircraft it can afford. Therefore, I was struck by an interview given to Breaking Defense, revealing a very interesting statistic.
“Last year 78 percent of the IAF’s operational flight hours were performed by UAS [unmanned aerial systems]. This year the number jumped and is 80 percent,” Lt. Col. S. told me at the Tel-Nof Air Force base, where the largest Israeli drone, the Heron-TP flies from.
The Heron, the squadron commander said, is performing a long list of missions, including many that were performed until recently by manned aircraft. The IAF has already replaced some manned squadrons with new UAS squadrons to perform the same missions. Reflecting this shift, the number of Herons, a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone, has grown by 50 percent recently. Its flight hours have soared by more than 25 percent since the beginning of 2018. “Some of the force’s manned squadrons, can perform similar missions to the ones we perform, but we have the advantage of long endurance,” Lt. Col. S. said.
. . .
“Most of our missions require long endurance and high altitude. The max operational altitudes of the UAS is up to 45.000 feet,” the squadron commander said. “The high degree of redundancy put into this UAS enables very long, uninterrupted missions, some times under very complex conditions.”
. . .
These drones are deployed on many missions, including persistent surveillance of areas such as Syria where the Iranians are upgrading rockets to be used by the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Sinai desert.
There's more at the link.
For an air force like Israel's, which trains its pilots constantly, to use only 20% of its flying hours for manned operations, says a great deal. I'm sure part of that is the longer-range missions its UAV's undertake, such as surveillance of Iran, areas of Africa such as Sudan, and persistent loitering observation of Lebanon and Syria. Transit time to and from the areas of operations takes up many flying hours, and turning circles over an area of interest for 24+ hours even more. Nevertheless, it's still eye-opening to realize just how often, and how long, its UAV's are in the air. It must be one of the most intensive operators of such missions in the world, rivaling even the US Air Force or other first-line competitors. Certainly, I'd guess it's in the top three worldwide.
This also highlights how operationally essential such missions have become. One simply can't keep pilots aloft for such extended periods. The human body can't take the strain. There's also the danger factor; the loss of an unmanned UAV costs money, but not lives, whereas a pilot would be at much greater risk over some of the areas where the IAF operates. Without UAV's, Israel simply could not monitor areas of interest to the extent that it requires.
That, of course, raises the question of arming UAV's for air strikes. The USAF has done so for decades in the so-called War on Terror, but Israel hasn't been very forthcoming about its operations with armed pilotless aircraft. The Heron-TP is certainly capable of that; it's been sold to India in an armed version. The trouble is, in the absence of an on-scene pilot to make a judgment call, there's always the potential for "collateral damage", where civilians are injured or killed. The USA is said to have killed hundreds of innocent persons in the course of UAV airstrikes against targets judged to be legitimate. Has Israel done likewise? Nobody knows, or, if they know, they're not saying.
Has the USAF ever released statistics about what proportion of its flying hours are carried out by UAV's? I haven't found any. Readers?