Israel has pulled from service one of its most battle-proven military aircraft. The Bell AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunship, which served with distinction in a long line of campaigns since the mid-1970s, is being replaced … with drones.
The news comes as no surprise to close observers of the Israeli air force. In fact, the last front-line Cobra squadron stood down in the summer of 2013. However, officials within the military only confirmed the news in May.
At first glance, the retirement of the AH-1—known in Israeli service by its Hebrew name Tzefa, or “Viper”—seems to make sense. After all, Israel’s attack helicopter fleet has for some years included the much more modern Boeing AH-64 Apache.
But the official reason for the demise of the Cobra is interesting in itself. If indeed unmanned aerial vehicles and not Apaches have assumed the AH-1s’ role, then the drones like the Cobras must be armed. To date, Israel has refused to confirm or deny that it possesses weaponized drones.
The Cobra entered Israeli service back in 1975, with the lessons of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War firmly in mind. The first examples were half a dozen hand-me-downs from the U.S. Marines. These provided valuable experience in the then-emerging helicopter gunship concept.
Israeli forces subsequently sent Cobras against Syrian armor during the 1982 campaign in Lebanon.
Since 1977, the Israeli air force’s First Attack Helicopter Squadron represented the spearhead of the Israeli Cobra community, which soon acquired improved AH-1F models.
As the final front-line AH-1 operator, the First Attack Helicopter Squadron disbanded at Palmachim in August 2013. Prior to this move, the International Institute for Strategic Studies reckoned Israel had 33 Cobras in its possession.
As the threat of a large-scale armored assault gave way to guerrilla and other asymmetric threats, the Cobra fleet kept pace. In its final configuration, the Tzefa was capable of surgical strike using the Machtselet, a version of Israel’s Spike guided missile.
It was niche capabilities like this that compelled Tel Aviv to keep the Cobra in service alongside the Apache in the 1990s and beyond, despite the latter’s overall superior performance and sensors.
Developed by Rafael, Machtselet is a fire-and-forget weapon with an imaging infrared seeker.
Withdrawal from the combat fleet won’t spell the end of the Israeli Cobra, however. The type has long played an important second-line role, training future attack helo crews at the Israeli air force academy.
While the academy’s Cobras have effectively been demilitarized for their training role, those flown by Israel’s dedicated aggressor unit are combat-capable. These, too, can be expected to soldier on, as they play a vital role in mimicking enemy attack helicopter tactics for the benefit of the IDF.
Based at Ovda, the adversary aircraft are flown by the Flying Dragon Squadron, also equipped with early-model F-16 jet fighters.
So what’s going to replace Israel’s Cobra in its classic front-line gunship role? The air force already has two squadrons of Apaches—the Magic Touch Squadron with the original AH-64A and the Hornet Squadron with the improved AH-64D, both based at Ramon.
As the number of AH-64s in service began to increase, the two previous AH-1 squadrons amalgamated into the First Attack Helicopter Squadron in 2005.
Although hampered by budget shortfalls, some AH-64As have been adapted to the more advanced AH-64D standard by Boeing in the U.S. This will also go some way to filling the gunship gap left by the Cobras’ retirement.
Despite the presence of the Apache, official accounts from Israel indicate that the true successor to the Cobra is unmanned. Israel has long been a pioneer of UAV operations, but to date has revealed no armed drones.
Perhaps the most likely candidate for an Israeli attack drone to replace the Cobra is the Elbit Hermes 900. Intriguingly, one of the two IDF squadrons that fly the Hermes is the Southern Cobra Squadron, originally an AH-1 operator.
In December 2012 the air force selected the locally-made Hermes 900 as its next-generation drone for the medium-altitude, long-endurance mission. Compared to its predecessor, the Hermes 450, the later model features increased range, endurance and altitude limits.
It also lifts a bigger payload that almost certainly includes air-to-ground weapons.
Even by its own standards, the IDF has been extremely coy about the presence of the Hermes drones in its air force. Of the two Hermes squadrons, both known to be based at Palmachim, one is still listed on the air force’s official Website as a helicopter operator. The sister unit is meanwhile entirely absent from its order of battle.
Israel has announced little about its recently inducted Hermes 900 fleet beyond its Hebrew name—Kochav, meaning “Star.” On the other hand, Israeli reporters have boasted of the fact that the Hermes 900 can carry Hellfire missiles “as far as Iran.”
The AGM-114 Hellfire is, of course, the weapon of choice for U.S. drone strikes, and is also carried by Israeli Apaches.
Reportedly to meet the demands of an unnamed potential customer within NATO, Elbit outfitted the Hermes 900 with provision to carry weapons on two inner hard-points, from a total of four such under-wing stations. The drone’s 350-kilogram payload capacity could easily accommodate Hellfires, which weigh around 50 kilograms apiece.
Carried in pods of four, the fire-and-forget Machtselet missile would also provide a very useful UAV weapon. Rafael has been promoting the similar Spike missile as a drone weapon for some years. It is strongly rumored that Spike-armed drones have already seen action in Gaza, as reported by Human Rights Watch.
Toting Spike missiles, Hermes 450s apparently played a key role in Operation Pillar of Defense in late 2012. Indeed, Spike-armed Hermes reportedly conducted the strike that killed Hamas second-in-command Ahmed Jabari during the opening of the campaign on Nov. 14, 2012.
While it is unlikely that Israel would risk such a vulnerable platform to spearhead any hypothetical strike against Tehran, it is highly probable that missile-armed Hermes drones will succeed the AH-1s in their typical combat missions against militant groups in the West Bank and Gaza.
Notably, both the drones and Apaches offer increased survivability compared to the Cobra, despite regular updates for the latter. A continued program of self-defense upgrades for its rotary-wing fleet indicates just how seriously the IDF takes the threat posed by shoulder-launched missiles in the hands of insurgents.
This factor, too, may have hastened the withdrawal of the AH-1 from the front line.
In recent years, Tel Aviv cut back Tzefa flying hours in favor of boosting hours for the AH-64 community. Budgetary constraints compelled the move.
The lack of cash available to the Israeli military came into sharp focus when the IDF cancelled almost all flights for air force trainees and reservists until further notice. Israel’s trouble in balancing the military budget parallels the stresses America’s air arms face.
Apart from their survivability and versatility, the UAVs have one other key factor in their favor—affordability. While the prized attack helicopter fleet is a critical and high-profile component of the IDF, it has not been safe from budget cuts, as evidenced by the curtailed AH-64A-to-D upgrade program. The main reason for the demise of the Cobra is therefore a fiscal one.
Back in summer 2006, during Israel’s campaigns in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, video evidence came to light indicating the presence of armed UAVs—widely assumed to be Herons.
At that time, the U.S. was the only nation confirmed to operate killer drones. Defense for Children International claimed the drone strikes killed 116 children during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, which struck Palestinian targets in Gaza between December 2008 and January 2009.
Still, Israeli officials did not acknowledge the use of the weaponized UAVs. Now, with potentially three different armed drones in the IDF inventory, and more details of Israeli UAV operations gradually emerging, official recognition might just be a matter of time.