Israel’s air force on Sunday introduced a fleet of huge pilotless planes that can remain in the air for a full day and could fly as far as the Persian Gulf, putting rival Iran within its range.
The Heron TP drones have a wingspan of 86 feet, making them the size of Boeing 737 passenger jets and the largest unmanned aircraft in Israel’s military. The planes can fly at least 20 consecutive hours.
The Associated Press is reporting that in the fleet’s inauguration ceremony at a sprawling air base in central Israel, the drone dwarfed an F-15 fighter jet parked beside it. The unmanned plane resembles its predecessor, the Heron, but can fly higher, reaching an altitude of more than 40,000 feet.
In past conflicts, various types and sizes of unmanned planes have been used in missions like long-range surveillance and attacking enemy targets with guided missiles in conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan, where anti-aircraft systems are rudimentary.
They have proven much less successful in conflicts where the opponents possessed better anti-aircraft weapons.
During NATO’s aerial onslaught against Serbia in 1999, for example, Serbian forces quickly shot down 42 U.S. drones, drastically reducing the effectiveness of the bombing campaign.
Israel’s military was the first to make widespread use of drones in its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, according to Mark Daly, an expert on unmanned aircraft at Jane’s defense publications in London.
Israeli companies are considered world leaders in drone technology and now export unmanned aircraft to a number of armies, including U.S.-led forces that have used them in Iraq and Afghanistan.