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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.

above targets such as radar installations, and then zero in for the kill, self-detonating when they hit. But India wants what is known as an Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV), preferably one with medium altitude capabilities and long endurance. Israel is helping them develop the Rustom that can fly at 9000 meters for up to 24 hours at over 1,000 kilometers and can reportedly function as a killer drone, which could be used against suspected terrorists in Kashmir.

Closer to home for Israel is Azerbaijan, which has purchased over $1.6 billion in Israeli military equipment, including five Heron drones, 5 Searchers, both made by IAI, and a dozen Hermes 450, made by Elbit. One of them was apparently shot down by Armenian forces last year over the disputed Nagorno-Karabkah enclave.

It was not the first Israeli-made UAV to be lost in the region. They were also flown and lost by the tiny Georgian military in 2008. Israel’s domestic defense industries are dependent on foreign sales in order to survive and its Defense Export & Defense Cooperation branch of the Defense Ministry is well greased to help, even if it means a conflict of interest sometimes. Elbit supplied Georgia with Hermes 450 surveillance drones and when armed conflict broke with Russia over South Ossetia in 2008, Russia managed to bring down three of them.

It gets even more complicated. According to data released by WikiLeaks, Israel provided Russia with secret data link codes for the Georgian drones in exchange for codes for the Tor-M1 missile complex Moscow sold to Iran. This would allow Russia to hack and bring down the Georgian drones and Israel to penetrate or disable Iranian anti-air missiles.

“The Russians saw how effective the (Israeli drones) were and they ended up signing deals with Israel Aerospace Industry to develop a joint UAV,” Egozi said.

IAI initially sold them the mini Bird-Eye 400 and short-range I-View Mk 150 and the longer range Searcher II. But that led to a contract worth some $400 million between IAI and Russia’s Oboronprom OPK Group in 2010 where Russia will manufacture the Heron 1, one of Israel’s most advanced UAVs. Russia’s experience with UAVs then was virtually non-existent and it marked one of the first purchases by Russia of a foreign weapon system.

At the time, Jacques Chemia, chief engineer of IAI’s UAV division, told reporters “Israel is the world’s leading exporter of drones, with more than 1,000 sold in 42 countries.”

The WikiLeaks documents further revealed that Washington objected to the Israeli cooperation with Russia on drones.

“Israel’s UAV technology is all ‘blue and white’,” said Egozi, using a phrase which means ‘made in Israel.’

“From the composite materials to the payloads. The US sees Israeli drones as serious competition, like the Heron TP against the Predator,” Egozi added.

Israel continued to penetrate the UAV market, even to potential US clients. Germany operated IAI’s Heron 1 for missions in Afghanistan. Britain’s Watchkeeper project is based on Elbit’s Hermes-450 UAV. Poland has recently announced it was replacing its aging Sukhoi-22 combat aircraft with UAVs and plans on purchasing between 125 to 200 drones. Israel is clambering over this lucrative deal. Both France and Germany were to purchase the large-scale Heron TP, but due to changes in their respective governments they are now reassessing those deals.

Furthermore Israel faces increasing competition from the US. The Washington Post recently reported that General Atomics has received approval to export to the Middle East and Latin America an unarmed, early-generation Predator drone, according to company spokeswoman Kimberly Kasitz. General Atomics is now in talks with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, among others, she said. Also, the Europeans are anxious to crack into the market. A pending merger between EADS and Britain’s BAE Systems could pave the way for them to cooperate and develop their own UAVs.

“A lot of birds are being invented, but making a good ground control center and dealing with a mission is not so easy,” said Ungar, the UAV consultant. “There is a big difference in having a capability and having an operational system. There are over 600 companies building unmanned systems in the world, but how to make an operational system working 24/7 is the tough part.”

He said that the market is changing and customers won’t be looking only at a UAVs’ range, endurance and payloads, but at how good it is at finding targets and completing the mission. It’s an area where he feels Israel has the experience and marketing edge.

The proliferation of drones is not just restricted to Western countries. China has quickly moved into the UAV market with a determined catch-up attitude. They have started to display their models in trade fairs. But Iran was the latest to announce a new type of combat drone. Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari revealed in late September that its new UAV called “Shahed 129” could fly 2,000 kilometers and launch missiles, which put Tel Aviv in its range.

“The drones were said to be used because they were more accurate and prevented collateral damage. This was the original motive for introducing them. But the enemy is learning to adjust and it doesn’t appear that they turned out to be more accurate anyway,” said Martin van Creveld, a leading military historian who writes about the future of war.

“I suggest that on Bastille Day, July 14, the French, instead of flying over Champs Elysees with fighter jets, they should use drones instead. It would be a drone parade because that’s what war’s becoming,” said Creveld.

“War has always been in part fought for glory and you don’t get glory by killing, but by risking your life. Drones take all the glory out of war. Using robots all the glory will be gone,” said Creveld, author of The Transformation of War.“ Maybe that would be a good thing?”