They are difficult to detect, deadly and cheap to build. Despite the dubious legality of assassinating suspected terrorists and Taliban without a trial, the market for drones is heating up around the world. With Israel and China moving into the market, are we about to see a new arms race?
Plastic tanks and miniature models of fighter jets are on display in Steven Zaloga's home office, and his bookshelves are overflowing with volumes about the history of war. War is Zaloga's area of expertise, but even more than that, it's his business. For 36 years, the historian has analyzed global trends in weapons. He currently works for the Teal Group, a renowned defense consulting firm in Fairfax, Virginia, a suburb of Washington.
Zaloga knows exactly how and where war can be profitable at any given point. And when he discusses which weapons have the best business prospects, he doesn't spare a glance for his models of tanks and fighter jets. Those weapons belong in history books.
The future belongs to drones, remote-controlled unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) equipped with sensitive reconnaissance electronics and powerful precision weapons. Drones provide the kind of weapons system strategists have always wished for: They allow a military force to exert power while minimizing its own risks, and to carry out precise, deadly strikes, without sending its own soldiers into danger.
The additional fact that drones are comparatively cheap has made them a favorite with the United States, which has used drone strikes to execute over 2,300 people. Most of these attacks have been carried out as part of the hunt for Taliban members hiding in Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan, and those killed include American-born al-Qaida associate Anwar al-Awlaki, who was executed by one of the remote-controlled weapons without first having been convicted by a court. A $94 Billion Market?
Zaloga points to a table showing Pentagon budget figures. In 2002, the US military spent around $550 million (€400 million) on drones. In 2011, the figure was nearly $5 billion.
Demand is growing around the world as well. "The Middle East will become an important market for drones," Zaloga believes. "Oman, Saudi Arabia, Egypt. And then Asia, of course: Malaysia, India, Australia. And Europe: Turkey, Italy, Poland, for example."
The analyst estimates global drone sales in the coming decade at $94 billion. Should it so choose, the US has a potential major export success on its hands. The only technological item possibly more popular is the iPhone. A new global " drone arms race" is coming, the New York Times wrote.
So far, the US has limited exports of the futuristic technology in order to prevent any compromising of its own head start. The State Department oversees exports and the sale of armed drones is generally not permitted, with just a few exceptions for very close allies. But the technology "can't easily be contained," says consultant David Deptula, who until recently served as the Air Force general in charge of the drone program. Less Complicated than Wrangling with Guantanamo