Unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) have the potential to revolutionize air warfare. The ability of armed UAVs to fly undetected over many areas and launch precision-guided strikes against time-critical targets makes them a major factor in the asymmetric battles that dominate current conflicts.

Their potential, moreover, as platforms for suppression of enemy air-defense systems, airborne early warning of ballistic missile attacks and even boost-phase intercept of ballistic missiles makes them flexible, effective and—importantly—low-cost assets that can engage hostile forces and advanced defenses. They can do this without risking the lives of pilots and, possibly, help shape the success of future wars.

While fifth-generation warplanes such as Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II are the pinnacle of military aviation, UCAVs might come to supplement or even dominate combat aviation. Dramatic developments in long-range air defense, sophisticated radars that negate stealth, beyond-visual-range combat and human limitations in mission endurance could make UCAVs more viable for many missions than manned aircraft.

UCAVs can be configured for a growing number of tasks. They can also be manufactured and operated at a fraction of the cost of manned combat aircraft, the growing price of which makes them difficult to absorb in dwindling defense budgets—at least for the foreseeable future.

UCAVs have already found an important battlefield niche in killing enemy leaders and disrupting forces. Israel has apparently been using precison strikes from airborne assets—manned as well as unmanned—in targeted killing operations for some time. The U.S. has used drones for years to eliminate insurgents. A U.S. strike on Sept. 30, for example, killed the notorious American-born Anwar Al Awlaki, a leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen. (On Oct. 14, Awlaki's son, Abdul Rahman Anwar Awlaki, was killed with six others in another U.S. drone attack.)

The problem with using UAVs to attack fleeting targets is the need to achieve real-time detection and identification before firing. Until recently, the technology for this was not available. The growing use of remote video links, which enable operators to monitor targets in real time, now allows users to deploy armed drones with greater confidence of successful identification and targeting. Network-enabled systems using distributed command-and-control elements—along with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and armed airborne assets—will benefit from progress made with UAVs and precision-guided weapons.

The U.S. has made good use of the Lockheed Martin Hellfire missile on its armed drones. Israeli suppliers are focusing on this market as well. Precision weapons that could be adapted for UCAVs include the Lahat missile, designed by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) subsidiary MBT. Lahat utilizes semi-active laser guidance to home in on targets from beyond 10 km (6 mi.). Fitted with a multipurpose shaped-charge warhead, Lahat engages targets marked by a laser designator on the launch platform, or by indirect designation from another unit closer to a target.

Rafael Advanced Defense Systems has been proposing its Spike guided missile as a UCAV weapon for at least two years. As far back as the 2005 Paris air show, Sagem displayed an early mockup of its Sperwer-B drone with a Spike dispenser tube under each wing. In his latest study on the 2006 Lebanon War, “Air Operations in Israel's War Against Hezbollah,” Benjamin Lambeth states that Israel was using Elbit Systems' Hermes 450 UAV with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems' Spike ER (extended-range) missiles over Lebanon and Gaza. There has been no confirmation of this by Israel, although Lambeth cites interviews with Israel Air Force (IAF) officials in his study.

Another candidate for an armed drone is IAI's turboprop Eitan UAV (also known as Heron TP). This 4.5-ton reconnaissance platform has a wingspan of 26 meters (85 ft.). The aircraft adds significantly to the operational capabilities of the IAF, primarily in long-range missions, and carries 1-ton payloads higher and longer than most other drones.

Whether the Eitan UAV can carry weapons has not been confirmed, though according to an IAF briefing, “Eitan has the potential to introduce new mission profiles and capabilities, as operators gather more experience with the aircraft.”

Such missions could include aerial refueling of UAVs, allowing them to stay aloft for weeks, and airborne early warning against ballistic missile attacks, using electro-optical and electromagnetic sensors. The missile-defense mission could, in fact, include boost-phase intercept, during which the UAV would attempt to destroy ballistic missiles during their ascent when they are most vulnerable.