* Move part of budget cuts
* More pilotless planes being used in Gaza operations
* U.S.-made Apache still in service
By Dan Williams
TEL AVIV, May 28 Israel has phased out one of
its two types of U.S. attack helicopter in favour of using more
drones, military officers have told Reuters, reflecting a need
for lighter and cheaper air power to counter Islamist guerrillas
on its borders.
They said Israel's last squadron of Cobras, built for
tank-hunting and eluding surface-to-air missiles, was pulled
from service late last year. The decision was previously kept
under wraps but disclosed in an increasingly public feud between
the Defence Ministry and Treasury over budget cuts.
Israel began flying Cobras after the 1973 Middle East war,
when its forces were battered by Egyptian and Syrian armour and
air defence units.
With Egypt now at peace with Israel, and Syria riven by a
more than 3-year-old revolt, the main threat the Jewish state
faces from their territories, as with neighbouring Lebanon and
Gaza, is sneak attacks by guerrilla rocket crews or riflemen.
Israel retains two squadrons of Apache helicopters which are
bulkier than Cobras but equipped with wide array of weaponry
that lends versatility and range to counter-insurgent
operations. It also flies an undisclosed number of pilotless
The Cobras were axed as part of budget cuts, a senior
military officer said. "They were sort of stuck in the middle in
terms of the role they could fulfil, so we decided to do without
them," he told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Israel had a fleet of approximately 33 AH-1 Cobra attack
helicopters, according London-based International Institute for
Strategic Studies (IISS).
Locally made Israeli drones increasingly patrol combat zones
such as the Gaza Strip. They can circle for long hours on
propeller engines, beaming back video to mark ground targets or
to guide troops.
Israel competes with the United States as a top global
supplier of drones manufactured by Elbit Systems,
Israel Aerospace Industries, and Aeronautics Defense Systems
The Israelis neither confirm nor deny the assessments of
many independent experts who assert that some of Israel's drones
are also equipped to fire precision-guided missiles.
Ephraim Segoli, a retired Israeli air force
brigadier-general with the Fisher Brothers Institute for Air and
Space Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv, said the Cobras were more
expensive to maintain than drones and older than the Apaches.
He said Israel also saw a shift to drones as a means of
reducing the danger posed by guerrillas armed with
shoulder-launched heat-seeking missiles. These have been fired
at Israeli helicopters - so far unsuccessfully - from Gaza and
the Egyptian Sinai.
"The more the technologies of the drones has improved, the
more they have been able to take over close air support roles,"
Segoli said, envisaging a time when piloted helicopters would be
"niche" assets in a mostly remote-controlled fleet.
The Cobra is manufactured by Bell Helicopter, a Textron
company. The Apache, which Israel began receiving in
1990, is manufactured by Boeing Co.. Israel buys most of
its U.S. arms out of annual defence grants from Washington.
An Israeli infantry officer said troops fighting Palestinian
guerrillas in Gaza now routinely call in drones, rather than
helicopters, for support.
Another officer said that the air force aimed to carry out
strikes "within minutes" of receiving a request from ground
troops - a timing that he said would likely be met by drones and
helicopters rather than jets.
Israel briefly grounded its Cobras after one of the
helicopters crashed during training in March 2013, killing two
Segoli said there were originally two Cobra squadrons but
the first was disbanded in the mid-2000s.
(Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Jeffrey Heller and Jason