TEL AVIV — Israeli war planners are eyeing a fleet of long- and ultra-long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as a low-cost, relatively low-risk backup to the dedicated military communications satellite they hope to deploy after 2010.

In interviews here, top Israeli brass said the operational shortcomings they experienced during the summer 2006 war in Lebanon underscored the need to provide secure communications to troops deployed in high-threat areas beyond Israel’s borders.

“We understand today the need to create a capability whereby UAVs will provide continuous communications support for our advancing forces,” said Maj. Gen. Udi Shani, the outgoing director for command, control, communications and computers on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) g eneral staff.

According to Shani, the unanticipated intensity of the He zbollah anti-tank threat forced the IDF to improvise ways to provide secure extended stationary and cellular connections to forces inside Lebanon. Original plans called for extended communications links to be transported into enemy territory via jeeps, hummers and other light vehicles. “But for various reasons, we decided we didn’t want to introduce soft vehicles into the battle area. It was too risky,” he said.

And while the IDF quickly improvised stop-gap solutions, such as a tethered aerostat equipped with some 60-kilograms of sensitive communications gear, Shani said it is now “crystal clear” that airborne alternatives are needed to replace or enhance truck-mounted communications infrastructure.

“We’re now in the process of doing the cost-benefit analyses that will help us determine what type of UAV platform is most appropriate and how many will be needed,” said Shani. He emphasized that UAV communication relay stations will complement rather than replace the continued need for a secure military communications satellite.

“This war validated and strengthened the need for the IDF and the defense establishment in Israel to have a dedicated military communications satellite,” Shani said.

While current capabilities are considered adequate for the IDF’s near-term needs, officials here said future needs will require much more dedicated bandwidth, which IDF planners like Shani believe can only be provided by a dedicated satellite working with other systems such as UAVs and ground-based communication relay systems.

Shani said security classifications prevented him from elaborating on the status of Israel’s planned dedicated military communications satellite, which industry sources here said has fallen victim to repeated delays due to funding cuts.

Currently, the IDF uses at least three means of secured communication: the Wi-Max wireless broadband point-to-multipoint communication system by Israel’s Tadiran Communications; the Mountain Rose terrestrial cellular network by Motorola-Israel; and satellite links for command-echelon systems provided by the locally developed and operated Amos-1 and Amos-2 commercial communications spacecraft. Tel Aviv-based SpaceCom Ltd. plans to launch a follow-on Amos-3 satellite by the end of 2007.

In interviews here, defense and industry sources said unmanned communications relay stations initially could be based on existing inventory such as Heron-1 (Shoval) by Israel Aircraft Industries Ltd. (IAI) or the Elbit Hermes 450S. But for the longer term, experts here said a new, super-sized UAV now being developed for the Israel Air Force could be the ideal platform to serve as a long-endurance flying switchboard.

Developed by IAI, the new, still classified UAV — dubbed Eitan (Steadfast) — could carry up to 1,800 kilograms of communications gear and other subsystems, while flying unrefueled for more than 24 hours at a time. Moreover, experts here are beginning to study possible modifications to Eitan and other Israeli UAVs to render them capable of receiving in-air refueling, which would dramatically extend endurance of the unmanned platforms.

“If you take a platform already capable of flying 24, 30 or more hours and give it the ability to remain airborne for days at a time, it becomes ideally suited for providing secure military communications over the battle area,” said Tal Inbar, an analyst at Israel’s Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies.

He added, “UAVs can help bridge the gaps pending deployment of a dedicated military communications satellites. And even once we have the space-based capabilities, they can serve as an extremely useful compliment for tactical battlefield communications.”