JERUSALEM, Feb. 22, 2010 -- The Israeli air force is calling its huge new pilotless plane "Eitan," the Hebrew word for strong.
Its wingspan is a massive 86 feet, the same as a Boeing 737 passenger jet. It can fly without refueling for over 20 hours at an altitude of over 40,000 feet.
It was launched Sunday in front of reporters at the Tel Nof air base in central Israel. Air Force chief Major General Ido Nehustan said the new drone "has the potential to be able to conduct new missions down the line, as they become relevant."
The launch of this Israeli-designed and -built aircraft is being interpreted by some as a clear warning message to Iran. The plane can fly spying missions over Iranian territory, a roundtrip journey of almost 2,000 miles.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear he is determined the Islamic Republic will not acquire nuclear weapons. Although his government appears reconciled to President Obama's current strategy of imposing tougher sanctions, he and other Israeli leaders insist the military option remains on the table.
While the U.S. attempts to muster critical Russian and Chinese support for a new round of economic sanctions against Tehran, Sunday's launch of the Eitan long-range drone is a reminder of Israel's continued preparation for possible air strikes.
The drone is manufactured by Israel Aircraft Industries and will become the largest plane of its kind in the Israeli arsenal.
It weighs 1.5 tons and can carry an impressive array of hi-tech equipment including cameras, devices to map the terrain, electronic jamming equipment and even missiles. It could provide crucial intelligence on Iran's nuclear sites and could help in building target lists for future air strikes.
The drone can also serve as a mobile communications bridge providing a link between ground controllers back in Israel and aircraft flying long-range bombing missions.
The Israelis hope the launch of their new drone will help increase the pressure on the Iranian regime just as the international community starts to lose patience with its continuing defiance.
The U.S. is pushing the United Nations for sanctions that would cause Iran to abandon its nuclear program.