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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.

Israel grapples with blowback from booming drone industry

One of the world's largest producers of drones now a target of copycat technology.


The Israeli air defense claims to have picked up the UAV while at sea and followed it as it entered Israel's air space at 12,000 feet. It was photographed and monitored for 20 minutes until it flew uncomfortably close to Dimona, the site of Israel's nuclear complex. An F-16 was ordered to shoot it down. The first anti-aircraft missile missed but a second fired a minute later hit it and it fell to the ground in a forest where the military eagerly waited to collect the pieces.

Seeking to score propaganda points, the Iranian news agency Fars reported that the commander of Israel’s Air Defense Division, Brig.-Gen. Doron Gavish, was sacked because his forces failed to detect the drone. Israeli military sources confirmed that Gavish was replaced, but that had been scheduled months ago. Furthermore, Israel’s Defense Ministry released a photo a few days later of Israel’s Minister of Defense Ehud Barak visiting an air defense base in northern Israel to praise the servicemen and women there for detecting the drone.

Israel is one of the world’s top powerhouses for developing and manufacturing a wide variety of UAVs, selling them across the globe from Latin America, to the Far East and lately Africa, its newest major market.

Experts say that the global market for drones is booming and the hottest items are the mini, micro and giant models that carry out more and more missions that were previously performed by manned aircraft.

“The UAV market is about to develop in giant steps and become the largest chunk of the aircraft sales in the world,” said Arie Egozi, an aviation expert who has covered the Israeli drone industry for over two decades.

Israel’s two major UAV manufacturers, Israel Aerospace Industry (IAI) and Elbit Systems Ltd., are well aware of the need to cooperate to win a chunk of the surging global UAV market. Today that market is valued at some $6 billion but it is expected to double in the next decade and grow to what some executives in Israel’s defense establishment estimate could reach $50 billion by 2020.

The sources say that this rapidly expanding global market for drones will require close cooperation to decrease the influence of 'new players' in the market, primarily from Europe and China. For the moment, the United States and Israel dominate the market and have been aggressively hawking their wares at international air shows from Dubai to Paris.

Israel is in fact stepping up its drive to widen its sales, Israeli defense industry sources say. Africa has become the latest major market for Israeli manufacturers of UAVs, they add. Specifically, African countries are seeking “first level” UAVs, for simple surveillance and intelligence without advanced payloads.

Recently, the Israeli Ministry of Defense approved the sale of the IAI’s “Heron” UAV to a number of African countries. IAI, Elbit and Aeronautics have sold UAV systems to Angola, Kenya, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Tanzania. The Israeli UAV manufacturers have pretty much got the market in the African continent to themselves and the only distant competition they face is from South Africa, Egozi said.

But Israel’s strongest clients are to the east in India, Singapore and Azerbaijan. India has established strong military ties with Israeli defense industries and has become its most lucrative market after Washington curbed Israeli military sales to China a decade ago. The Indian armed forces are currently using about 100 Searcher-II and 60 Heron UAVs, both made by IAI, but is also in the process of developing its own drones with Israel’s help.

Those UAVs are mainly used to monitor the border with Pakistan, where US-operated UAVs are in service. Pakistan has been pushing to receive the armed Predator, made by General Atomics in San Diego, as part of its military aid package from Washington. US Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy reportedly assured India last month that only unarmed drones would be sold to Pakistan. But Islamabad still remains hopeful of getting the armed Predators in the near future. Meanwhile, Pakistan has been jointly developing an armed drone with China. That would put it at an advantage over India, which currently lacks any reusable armed UAV. 

Enter Israel, again.

Israel has supplied India with a few “kamikaze” drones, called Harpy, which hover