UAVs perform the most extensive and diversified range of missions in the aerial world. The most familiar and most frequent ones are visual intelligence missions. However, UAVs also perform many other military missions, such as escorting and monitoring operations of other elements, providing auxiliary infrastructure, scanning routes, spotting IEDs and providing communication relays. US forces even use UAVs for air strike missions.
In Israel, we tend to forget the early missions performed by the IAF’s first jet-propelled RPVs procured from the US – the Mabat RPV (Teledyne-Ryan BQM-34 Firebee), which carried out off-line photoreconnaissance missions; the Shadmit RPV (a different version of the Firebee), used as a training target drone for missile systems and for deceiving enemy radar and anti-aircraft weapon systems, and the Telem (Northrop Checker) RPV, also used as a decoy and target drone.
UAVs perform many other missions which have evolved in the field of internal security, such as firefighting and police missions, and even purely civilian missions such as weather research, oceanographic and polar exploration, et al.
It seems that almost everything has already been said about the missions assigned to UAVs, but the recent ingression of a hostile UAV into the Israeli airspace has brought to the surface a new UAV mission, which until recently had been marked as a 'distant future' mission – the interception, or air-to-air mission.
On December 23, 2002, military history was made over Iraq. In an air combat encounter between a MiG-25 fighter and a US Predator UAV, the MiG launched an air-to-air missile at the UAV and shot it down. This encounter is regarded as the first of its kind, owing to the fact that the Predator UAV, which carried air-to-air armament (AIM-92 Stinger missiles), launched a missile at the MiG fighter, but missed.
This historic fight was not the first combat encounter between a manned fighter and a UAV. Other notable incidents in this field are the downing of an Indian Searcher UAV by a Pakistani F-16 fighter in June 2002 and the downing of a Hermes-450 UAV by a Russian MiG-29 fighter over Georgia in April 2008.
Three hostile UAV kills were recorded in Israel as well. Two Iranian-made Ababil UAVs were shot down using Python-5 air-to-air missiles during the Second Lebanon War. Another UAV, which entered Israeli airspace in October 2012, was shot down by an IAF interceptor using an air-to-air missile.
Analysis of video recordings of these kills shows that they all had one thing in common: the interceptors had to close in on the UAV, sometimes to the point of actual visual contact. This reflects the complexity of the task of hitting a small and slow airborne platform by big and fast interceptors.
The idea of using UAVs for interception missions around the world is not new. The long-term master plan of the US Department of Defense, announced in 2011, presented a roadmap for the next twenty five years. The plan referred to the air-to-air mission by UAVs, dispatched to areas where there is no 'air superiority' to intercept manned aircraft as a worthy mission – but one that would only be developed as of the year 2025. In my opinion, we can expect it to happen much sooner. The issue of employing UAVs for interception missions by arming them with air-to-air missiles is relevant with regard to two primary aspects: one – dealing with small and slow hostile targets (such as helicopters and UAVs) more effectively than fighter aircraft, and the other – dealing with enemy interceptors threatening the UAVs.
As far as the task of dealing with small and slow hostile aerial targets is concerned, the low flying speed of the UAV; its ability to use many different sensors (both ground-based and airborne) to spot the target; and above all, the ability to stay many hours in an area beyond the coverage of standard air-defense systems, provide the foundation for the development of a superior interception capability.
As far as the task of dealing with enemy interceptors is concerned, a long-endurance UAV is a 'sitting target' for an interceptor. On the other hand, a UAV carrying air-to-air missiles is a nightmare for interceptor pilots. The main reason for this is that contrary to a fighter aircraft, which is often required to close in on the UAV and deal with complex target dimension and low flying speed, for the UAV, the attacking aircraft is a clearly visible target, even at beyond visual range (BVR) ranges and over the horizon.
In my estimate, the field of UAVs is currently spreading to hostile countries and evolving into an important element in the global and regional arms race. In this state of affairs, we must prepare for the eventuality of hostile UAVs as intelligence gathering systems and as systems capable of executing terrorist attacks.
The way towards an operational interception UAV option is by no means a simple or short one. It calls for the adaptation of air-to-air missiles to the various UAV systems in terms of weight, sensors, interfaces and so forth. The operational need is obvious – all that remains is dealing with the implementation process.
The increasing threat, along with the technological progress and understanding the advantages that can be expected from UAV systems as far as mission execution is concerned, will lead, in the coming years, to the emergence of the interception and air superiority mission as a mission assigned to UAVs. We can expect to see it initially at exhibitions, where purpose-designed armament and weapon systems will be presented, and subsequently in trials, demonstrations and the announcement of initial operational capability – which would probably be made by the US market.
Alon Unger, CEO of Op-Team-UM Unmanned Systems Consulting Ltd, is one of the founders of the Israeli UAV layout and serves as a senior consultant in the field in Israel and around the world