Israel's air force on Sunday introduced a fleet of huge pilotless planes that can remain in the air for a full day and fly as far as the Persian Gulf, putting rival Iran within its range.
The Heron TP drones have a wingspan of 86 feet, making them the size of Boeing 737 passenger jets and the largest unmanned aircraft in Israel's military. The planes can fly at least 20 consecutive hours and are primarily used for surveillance and carrying diverse payloads.
At the fleet's inauguration ceremony at a sprawling air base in central Israel, the drone dwarfed an F-15 fighter jet parked beside it. The unmanned plane resembles its predecessor, the Heron, but can fly higher, reaching an altitude of more than 40,000 feet, and remain in the air longer.
"With the inauguration of the Heron TP, we are realizing the air force's dream," said Brig. Gen. Amikam Norkin, head of the base that will operate the drones. "The Heron TP is a technological and operational breakthrough."
Israeli officials refused to say how large the new fleet is or whether the planes were designed for use against Iran, but stressed it was versatile and could adapt to new missions. The plane's maker, state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, has said it is capable of reaching the Persian Gulf, which would put Iran within its range.
"The Heron TP has the potential to be able to conduct new missions down the line as they become relevant," said Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan, commander of Israel's air force.
Israel believes Tehran is trying to develop nuclear weapons and has repeatedly hinted it could strike Iran if diplomatic efforts to curb the nuclear program fail.
"The announcement by Israel of the capability of Israeli drones is intended to make clear what could happen if the U.N. fails to act," said CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst Pamela Falk, "but neither Israel nor the U.S. believe that a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities is the preferred option."
Israeli defense officials said the Heron TP could be a useful tool against Iran, whose leaders have repeatedly called for the Jewish state's destruction. In addition to providing surveillance, the aircraft can jam enemy communications as well as assist in communications between ground control and manned air force planes.
The officials requested anonymity because they were discussing sensitive military technology.
The Heron TP has been in development for about a decade, but the aircraft first saw action during Israel's offensive against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip just over a year ago.
Palestinian witnesses have long claimed that Israeli drones fire missiles in Gaza, both before and during the Israeli offensive. Israel has never confirmed that its unmanned aircraft are capable of firing missiles.
Israel first began using drones in the early 1970s, and its fleet has steadily increased since then. The unmanned planes are now considered an integral part of the military and tend to accompany air and ground forces on various missions.