The Israel Air Force’s most advanced unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the Heron TP, known as the Eitan, is back in the air after being grounded for over seven months. The extraordinary decision to ground all Eitan UAVs was taken after one crashed in late January during a test fight of its payload.
The Eitan is a long-range UAV, capable of reaching Iran, but it did not get far on that January test flight. A rolling breakdown caused a wing to break, resulting in a crash from high altitude, which shattered the UAV in an orchard on the Coastal Plain.
The Air Force and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI) struggled to understand the cause of the crash to one of the Air Forces’ operational workhorses. For years, the Air Force has been expanding its UAV fleet and missions, which now carry out a quarter of all missions – a proportion that is likely to grow.
Examination of the remains found that a wing spar broke under a load for which it was not designed to bear, during the test flight. The crash of the UAV, a state-of-the-art machine in global aviation, was a blow to morale and the pocket, as each Eitan is estimated to cost $5 million.
According to foreign media reports, the Air Force used the Eitan to attack convoys in the Sudan carrying weapons from Iran to terrorist organizations in Gaza. The Eitan’s latest intelligence gathering capabilities in difficult conditions, its ability to closely monitor a target, its state-of-the-art observation systems, and ability to stay aloft for over 35 hours while using satellite communications systems, make it relevant under any scenario of a possible Israeli strike on Iran.
Meanwhile, the Air Force is making sure to have the Eitan ready for such a war, and is keeping a low profile about its operational capabilities.
The Eitan’s status in the Air Force and its role in building the Air Force’s long arm, meant that there was no cutting of corners investigation into the January crash. The Air Force insisted on finding out what went wrong, step by step, mainly to avoid the risk of similar crashes of costly UAVs and disrupting training and operational programs. Such breakdowns should not happen when the Air Force is required to be on high alert to fulfill paramount strategic missions.
The Eitan crashed just one month after a top-secret US UAV, the RQ-170 Sentinel, crashed on a CIA intelligence gathering mission of Iran’s nuclear facilities. The RQ-170, whose development was top secret, is used by the US military to track el Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan, and has been nicknamed the Beast of Kandahar.
Two days after Iran announced the crash of the RQ-170, Revolutionary Guards put it on display. The Americans knew that the Iranians would not waste time, and would use reverse engineering to crack one of US Army’s most innovative systems.
With this in mind, IAI engineers returned to the drawing boards used to design the Heron a decade earlier to find the cause of the Eitan’s crash. During this time, the Eitans sat in Palmachim Air Force Base hangars, and their operators used simulators to keep up the skills.
The Air Force and IAI crash investigation team concluded that a cause of the crash was a childhood illness of the technologies and complex materials used in the Eitan. After the cause of the crash was found, the Eitans were strengthened, but not in a way that would require structural change.
A defense source involved in the program told “Globes”, “We succeeded in obtaining absolute certainty that the fault has been fixed. After we located the problem, we understood that the extreme flight conditions of the test flights exposed the Eitan to load dangers that were liable to end in the way that the January test flight ended. Today, the chance of this happening verges on absolute zero.”