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While the Israeli media has to report that "an air force aircraft fired a missile at a car carrying the wanted man," newspapers around the world, Internet sites, and reports from Palestinians tell of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) patroling the skies of Gaza and delivering their payloads. One need not be a party to military secrets: common sense is enough to deduce that if already three years ago, six Al-Qaida members were assassinated in Yemen by a missile fired from an American UAV, it is highly likely that someone in the Israel Defense Forces, one of the first armies to utilize UAVs, has thought of this modus operandi as well.

A conference organized by the International Quality & Productivity Center (IQPC) that took place in London last week dealt with the ever-increasing use of assault UAVs. And while the speakers included just one Israeli, the IDF was mentioned time and again as a leader in the development of advanced methods for their operation.

The conference's discussions painted an interesting picture of the battlefield of the future, presenting it as being flooded with UAVs. And while most of the examples and scenarios presented during the conference did not deal with the Middle East, one can certainly infer from them about what is expected to transpire in our region. It turns out that quite a large number of countries already are involved in the development of UAVs that will carry out all the tasks performed by manned aircraft today. According to the vision of the future presented by all conference speakers, it won't be long before piloted fighter aircraft will be nearly completely pushed out of the combat arena. The UAVs will do the job better, more accurately, more cheaply, and human lives will not be at risk.

One of the UAVs' main advantages is they can be deployed without time constraints. While the duration of missions carried out by manned aircraft depend on limited endurance capabilities of their pilots, UAVs can be fueled in mid-air, traverse huge distances, and remain in the operational zone as long as necessary. The UAVs will gather intelligence and relay it in real time to commanders on the home front and even to any soldier equipped with a palm-held computer. Using electronic warfare systems, the UAVs will jam all enemy communications channels and electronic systems; and they will also serve to relay radio and television broadcasts over large distances. The UAV will even function as a defense system against ballistic missiles, using its missiles to strike at them in the launch stage. And, as previously mentioned, UAVs will attack targets on the ground without jeopardizing pilots' lives. The dozens of UAVs deployed in the battlefield will "speak" to each other, divide the targets among themselves, and coordinate intelligence-gathering missions.

What was perceived until not too long ago as science fiction is now taking shape in the laboratories of defense industries worldwide - from Boeing and Northrop in the United States and Alenia Aeronautica in Italy, to companies in Australia and Sweden. A review of the development directions presented at the conference immediately raises the question: Why didn't they think of this before? And the answer, of course, is that they did; but only now does the technology that facilitates the required development exist.

One interesting development program is that of the U.S.'s future UAV, which will be a huge vehicle that not only can serve as a perfect substitute for the manned fighter aircraft, but also feature additional capabilities. This UAV will be bigger than an F-16 fighter jet, weighing some 20 tons, be equipped with four engines and all possible weapon types, be able to refuel in mid-air and land on aircraft carriers. And it will cost about one-third of the price of the U.S. air force's fighter aircraft of the future. If the development of this UAV goes according to plan and enters into active service in about 10 years, the battlefield will completely change. As expected, sophisticated weapons systems that enter into active service in the United States will soon find their way into the IDF as well.

Some aspects of UAV development among local defense industries remain under wraps. However, one can assess, of course, that they are not very different to developments transpiring in this area throughout the West. From published information, Israeli industries are manufacturing UAVs for intelligence gathering, and they have been sold to a large number of countries. Reports have also revealed the development of the Harpy UAV, which attacks and destroys radar systems. There also have been reports that the Rafael Armament Development Authority looked into developing a missile-equipped UAV that would patrol enemy missile-launch areas (for example, in Iran), and intercept any missile immediately after launch. This program, called Moab, was canceled even though it was expected to be far more effective than the Arrow missile system, in which huge resources are still being invested.

Based on developments presented at the London conference, it is clear that the IDF is moving toward diverting additional missions from manned aircraft to UAVs. Defense establishment officials had been unsure of the role UAVs would play within the framework of the war on terror. Recent experience, however, proves that the missions entrusted to UAVs patroling Gaza's skies are being carried out more efficiently than by those involved manned aircraft.