The IAI Eitan isn’t a new species of bird. Having evolved from the IAI Heron, the Eitan - or Heron TP - has been soaring freely in the sky, and over Gaza, for several years. But Israel has finally caged its fleet and by doing so has brought the birds into the room.
Assurances from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel isn’t planning a war with Iran rang hollow without the public unveiling of the Heron TP, Israel’s state-of-the-art Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). The elephant has proliferated so we’ll jump right on them. Every piece of evidence indicates Israel will ultimately strike militarily at Iran’s nuclear facilities and that the Heron TP will be an intricate part of the attack.
And most of the evidence comes from inside Israel.
Start from the fact that every report on the Heron TP, if not the headline itself, states early and often that it can reach Iran, a detail supplied by Israel itself. Then add the technical marvels of the drone relating to its large size: an operating altitude of 40,000 feet, a “diverse payload,” and quiet motors.
“Despite its mammoth proportions, its engine is quiet, so it can be used in covert operations,” reports the Jerusalem Post.
The technical aspects of the IAI Eitan appear tailored for a strike against Iran and the PR behind it does nothing to play down the possibility, suggesting Iran is the final destination.
Now multiply by the statements of Israeli officials, private and public, all implying that the Heron can achieve most any covert mission. Brig. Gen. Amikam Norkin, commander of the base that will operate the drones, hailed, “With the inauguration of the Heron TP, we are realizing the air force's dream. The Heron TP is a technological and operational breakthrough.”
A significant realm of the Israeli Air Force’s dream happens to be attacking Iran, seeing that it is the only branch of the IDF capable of doing so. Major General Ido Nehushtan, chief of Israel's Air Force, said the drone, "has the potential to be able to conduct new missions down the line as they become relevant.”
“New missions as the become relevant...” - sounds like Iran.
"I can tell you, it can do a lot of missions,” Lieutenant Colonel Eyal Asenheim, a drone operator, told the AP. “It can do some special missions, unique missions that no other UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] can do.”
What’s more special or unique than attacking Iran?
The probability of a strike increases further after stepping back to view the larger picture. To return to Netanyahu’s denial of a war plan, the transparency of his words are four-fold.
First, Israel had to talk up a strike to create and maintain the threat; as the hour approaches it must reverse and deny to mask its actions. Second, semantics are possibly at work as Netanyahu likely wants no more of a “war” than Iran does. Yet whether it expects retaliation or not, Israel considers attacking Iran to be a tactical strike, not a lengthy campaign, i.e. a war.
Third, Netanyahu was responding to Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s claim that Israel is, “seeking to start a war next spring or summer, although their decision is not final yet.” Brushing off Ahmadinejad was easy points to score with the international community in general and his personal audience at the time.
Netanyahu hadn’t voluntarily vowed to refrain from striking Iran. He was meeting President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, trying to delay Russia’s shipment of surface-to-air missile units of the S-300, considered one of the most advanced anti-missile systems, to Iran. He was also trying to squeeze out a promise for stiffer sanctions.
Thus Netanyahu downplayed the option of war because he needed something, not because he sincerely feels that way. This is someone who saw no potential problems with assassinating a Hamas agent in Dubai, and is liable to view Iran in the same rosy glasses.
But the Russian angle digs deeper still.
Soon after Netanyahu left, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov hit back at his favorite saying: “The term 'crippling sanctions' on Iran is totally unacceptable to us. The sanctions should aim at strengthening the regime of non-proliferation. We certainly cannot talk about sanctions that could be interpreted as punishment on the whole country and its people for some actions or inaction.”
Presuming that Putin feels the same way, we can see a clear divergence when Netanyahu states, “Russia understands very well the problem posed by a nuclear Iran. The most important thing now is that there is a general interest... that Iran not become a nuclear power."
To Russia (and China), the problem is maintaining a strong Iran while pursuing non-proliferation to appease the West. To Israel (and America) the problem is weakening Iran in totality - politically, economically, and militarily. As such, it’s difficult to believe Russia and China will ever approve of the sanctions that Israel and America desire.
It’s also debatable whether sanctions, crippling or otherwise, will deter Iran from producing nuclear weapons if that is its intent. All of these factors feed into the probability that Israel possesses only one true way to prevent or destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities - a military strike - and history shows Israel will act.
Today’s reports, after mentioning the Eitan’s range, often include accounts of Israel’s past behavior, notably the strike on a suspected Syrian nuclear plant in 2007 and a Hamas arms convoy in 2009.
A Heron shadow is especially prevalent in the the latter example. Soon after reports of Israel’s strike in Sudan started popping up, the London Times revealed that the attack was carried out by UAVs - Hermes 450s and the Eitan. Time reported that F-16’s took part in the strike instead, but Israeli officials later acknowledged the presence of drones.
One IDF sources reasonably explained why drones likely played a lead role, not just through surveillance, during the attack.
Calling the convoy, a “slippery” target, he said, “When you attack a fixed target, especially a big one, you are better off using jet aircraft. But with a moving target with no definite time for the move UAVs are best, as they can hover extremely high and remain unseen until the target is on the move.”
This account runs contrary to using UAVs to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, but the risk involved will make the possibility far more appealing. More to the point, the response of Israeli officials to the Sudan strike sounds exactly like Iran.
Then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had declared shortly before, “We operate in every area where terrorist infrastructures can be struck. We are operating in locations near and far, and attack in a way that strengthens and increases deterrence. There is no point in elaborating. Everyone can use their imagination. Whoever needs to know, knows.”
And after the strike, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters while touring Golan Heights, “I don't believe that in our current situation we have the privilege to talk too much. We must do what is needed and keep quiet.”
With the securing and effects of “crippling sanctions” in doubt and American support by no means a sure thing, Barak voices the same philosophy that will lead to a strike against Iran. Israel has always put its own interests and security ahead of its allies - why will this time differ?
The Heron is a temporary signal of preemptive warning, a display of power, but it’s designed to carry tactical nuclear payloads without human operators as far as the Persian Gulf. With the world unlikely to treat Iran as it wishes, Israel’s new flock has many destinations but one overriding target.