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The global market for drones is booming. But what does the coming arms race mean for US national security interests — and the future of warfare? GlobalPost correspondents report from critical locations around the world, from Israel to Iran to Yemen to Brazil — where unmanned aerial vehicles are radically transforming combat and surveillance.
International trade shows offer a window into a booming business.
FARNBOROUGH, United Kingdom — Every two years, the world's aerospace industry descends on this town in the London exurbs in the heat of summer.
Military delegations and civilian groups spend tens of billions of dollars on the hot, big-ticket items displayed in over 105,000 square meters of exhibition space.
And no displays received more interest this year than those of the latest drones.
This year, 107,000 delegates schmoozed at 1,500 stands at the week-long event, which traces its beginnings back to the 1920s. Combining the raw business climate of the global arms market and the excitement of an air show, more than $72 billion in contracts were signed before the trade fair ended.
An as yet undetermined chunk of that was spent on drones, or ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicles’ in the parlance of the arms industry.
“Any new technology has the potential to be abused.”~Stephen McKeever, Oklahoma secretary of science and technology
"We don't call them drones, because there's always a man in the loop, we prefer UAV or UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems)," said Michael Toscano at a pre-Farnborough conference at Britain's Defense Academy.
Toscano is president of AUVSI, the industry association representing drone makers and suppliers. There are a lot of them.
"The military developed unmanned systems to save lives, private business wants to develop them to make money," Toscano says.
UAVs are the fastest-growing sector in the aerospace industry, according to a recent study by defense consultancy The Teal Group.
Current global sales are about $6.6 billion a year. This is expected to almost double to $11.4 billion annually over the next decade. Over the ten-year period $89 billion dollars worth of drones are expected to be sold at air shows like this one and others in Dubai, Singapore and Paris where the world gathers to buy arms.
The surging market in the global sale of UAVs occurs at a time when these systems are becoming a common tool not just in the military but for civilian use as well.
The speed with which drones have become tactical weapons of choice, rather than surveillance tools, has alarmed senior military commanders and theorists. Some, like a former chief of Britain's Royal Navy, question their legality. Others ask whether their use challenges the basic chain of command that goes into critical military decision making.
Those concerns haven't stopped nations cutting deals for existing systems and trying to develop their own. The US and Israel are the main manufacturers and purveyors of all things drone, while Asia is the fastest-growing market in the world. Overall spending on UAVs in Asia is expected to reach around $700 million by 2016.
With a potential market that big, it's no wonder so many countries were selling their drones at Farnborough.
One morning during the festival I watched a salesman from Elbit Systems, one of the major players in Israel, in action.
Eli Dotan was surrounded by a scrum of Nigerian officials. They were led by a ‘Mr. Umar,’ who was asking about Elbit's Hermes system.
The Hermes, Dotan told him, has flown 40,000 combat missions. There are two models. The 450 and the top-of-the-line 900 series, which Elbit boasts in its website has “class leading payload capacity of 350 kilograms” and is “capable of performing missions for area dominance, persistent intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance.”
The 450 is a good starter model. The Nigerians kept ogling the top-of-the-line 900. The salesman smiled and answered questions but kept emphasizing the 450 might be the place to begin.
Relationship established, cards were exchanged. The scrum moved on. GlobalPost chased after it.
What does Nigeria want the drone system for? Internal security? African Union operations in other parts of Africa?
Mr. Umar, who his assistant says is his country's defense minister but who may not have been officially appointed yet, smiles a wide Nigerian smile, referring to Col. Abubakar Umar, who is reportedly a leading candidate vying for the ministerial post.
“You know, my government says I cannot talk to reporters," Mr. Umar laughs, then gestures at the enormous hall crammed with aerospace equipment. "This is a business environment."
Back at Elbit, Eli Dotan explains, he doesn't expect to make sales at Farnborough. Sales come later and there are a lot of them.
"We are competing on the worldwide market with great success," he says.
But the market right now is tough. Austerity budgets are a global phenomenon, and that means military procurement budgets are being slashed. UAV