'Messengers of Death': Are Drones Creating a New Global Arms Race?


"Smile when you look up at the sky," says Avi Bleser. "There's always someone watching." Bleser is director of marketing and sales at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), a company already hard at work supplying the world's drones. IAI's biggest client is Israel itself, a country with more drones in its skies than any other in the world. No other company has sold as many drones as IAI, and Israel is the world's second largest exporter of drones, after the US. While other armies are just beginning to experiment with remote-controlled aircraft, the Israeli Air Force recently celebrated the 40-year anniversary of its first drones.

IAI runs a veritable city on the edge of Tel Aviv's airport, outfitted with workshops, hangars, runways and a total of 17,000 employees. The company offers an entire range of UAVs, from micro-drones such as the "Mosquito," which weighs just 250 grams (nine ounces), to the "Bird-Eye," which two soldiers could carry in a backpack, to the "Panther," transported by tanks and capable of flying up to 60 kilometers (37 miles) behind enemy lines and transmitting live images.

IAI's most important product, however, is the "Heron." Its latest version, the "Heron-TP," weighs five metric tons (5.5 US tons) and can carry weapons. When the head of the Israeli Air Force presented the new Heron-TP fleet last year, he said the drones could also be used for "new missions." Many took this as an indication that the Heron-TP was partly developed in order to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.

Heron drones are in constant use in Afghanistan, employed by Canada, Australia, Spain and the German Bundeswehr. The Heron has flown 5,000 hours for Germany alone just this year. And with the Bundeswehr's leasing contract on its three Herons up for renewal soon, it might well replace the current models with the TP version.

Israel's successful drone is omnipresent. The Heron flies in Libya, where France uses it for reconnaissance as part of NATO operations there. It performs surveillance on the Indian border in the Himalayas and provides the Turkish Air Force with target coordinates of training camps of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). It has customers in 30 countries, including India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and South Korea, as well as Brazil and Ecuador, as South America too stocks up on drones, particularly for use against drug smuggling.

Buyers are beating down the company's door. "Once they start using drones, they can't stop," Bleser says, as he leads the way into a hall with several Herons in it. This is where the radar systems and cameras are installed. Bleser shows first the engines, made in Austria, then proudly points out the command center, a green, box-like facility half the size of a shipping container, with eight display screens in it. "You can even sit in your living room and control the drones from there," he says.

UAVs make up 20 percent of IAI's sales. With attack drones providing the "operational answer to any need," Tommy Silberring, head of the company's drone division, believes "every country wants to have drones." In the picture he paints of the future, all aircraft will be unmanned -- first cargo planes, then perhaps eventually commercial flights. "Automated systems are better than people," he says. "Computers don't get sick and they're never in a bad mood."

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