TEL AVIV, Israel, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- The Israeli military unveiled the upgraded Shoval unmanned aerial vehicle for maritime surveillance, built by Israel Aerospace Industries, and the Flying Elephant, which can carry a 1-ton payload of supplies for front-line troops, built by Elbit Systems.
These UAVs, along with an upgraded version of the giant Eitan, or Steadfast, surveillance UAV also built by IAI that was launched Aug. 14, underline Israel's growing strength in the unmanned aircraft field amid advances in Iran's drive to develop robotic forces.
An Israeli air force F-16I shot down an Iranian-built Hezbollah UAV Oct. 6 over the Negev Desert near the Dimona nuclear reactor after it penetrated 25 miles inside the Jewish state.
The incident jolted Israel and was widely seen as a warning from Iran, via Hezbollah, that it has the technological and operational capabilities to threaten the Jewish state.
Israeli concerns were heightened after Iran's air defense commander, Brig. Gen. Farzad Esmaili, announced the development of a new long-range bomb-carrying drone, the Hazem, Sunday.
He didn't specify whether the UAV can reach Israel.
The first long-range UAV built by Iran, the Karrar, or Striker, unveiled in August 2010, can supposedly carry four cruise missiles, two 250-pound bombs or one 500-pound precision-guided munition.
It has a reported range of 620 miles -- not enough to target the Jewish state.
The Shoval was rolled out by state-owned IAI Sunday while the prototype of the Flying Elephant, considered a technological breakthrough for supplying ground forces in the battlefield, was first shown a few days earlier in central Israel by Elbit Systems.
The new and improved version of the Shoval carries four surveillance cameras instead of one.
That makes it a key development in Israel's unfolding plans to protect its rich, and highly strategic, natural gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean that will make the state self-sufficient in energy for decades to come.
The production platforms and other infrastructure are seen as key targets for Iranian missiles or suicide attacks by Hezbollah, Iran's prize proxy based in Lebanon, within easy strike range of the gas fields.
This comes hard on the heels of IAI's recent relaunch of the Israeli air force's most advanced UAV, the Heron TP, known as the Eitan, capable of reaching Iran and staying in the air for 35 hours.
The Eitan program was grounded for seven months after one of the 5-ton drones, the largest UAV in the air force inventory, crashed during a flight testing new payloads in late January.
Much has been made of the Eitan's ability to reach Iran, although the Israelis have divulged almost nothing about what its missions might be over the Islamic Republic beyond surveillance.
That in itself is a major achievement. The Eitan would be able to widen Israel's surveillance capabilities, which currently are provided by the Ofek series of spy satellites concentrated on Iran's nuclear program.
The latest, Ofek 9, was launched June 22, 2010, from Palmachim air force base south of Tel Aviv. Like its predecessors, Ofek 9 was built by IAI, with Elbit Systems' El-Op division providing the optical payload.
However, the $5 million state-of-the-art Eitan, as the long arm of the Israeli air force, is widely believed to have been used in early 2011 to carry out missile attacks on convoys carrying Iranian arms across Sudan bound for the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Israel is a world leader in developing advanced UAV, along with the United States, and is now the largest exporter of unmanned systems.
The Globes business daily observed that "the air force has been expanding its UAV fleet and missions for years, which now carry out a quarter of all missions -- a proportion that's likely to grow."
Eitan became operational with the air force in 2010 and three squadrons are now reported to be equipped with it.
The Flying Elephant's still under development. The system, silent and guided by a GPS system, is due to be operational within 4-5 years.
"Logistics UAVs are intended as a response to the rising threat faced by pilots ferrying and parachuting supplies to combat troops as well as a response to the difficulty in opening ground routes for trucks carrying supplies to the forces in the field," Globes reported.