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
The US is carrying out drone strikes ever more frequently. Vice President Joe Biden, especially, has been an effective advocate for the weapons. It was Biden who urged his boss to end the war in Afghanistan and instead to combat the Taliban with drone strikes on their hideouts in Pakistan. Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama now sends out a missile-equipped drone an average of once every four days, while his predecessor, George W. Bush, did so only once every 47 days. Obama, it seems, has taken a liking to remote-controlled war, which delivers faster results and is less complicated than wrangling with Guantanamo.
The American fleet now stands at 230 drones. The Air Force trains more pilots for drone operations than for fighter jets, and last month acknowledged the existence of previously classified drone bases in Ethiopia, the Seychelles and Djibouti.
American manufacturers such as Northrop Grumman and General Atomics would like to start marketing their products to the rest of the world, and their representatives serve as cheerleaders urging more and more new drones. "Countries have an insatiable appetite for drones," James Pitts, from defense contracting giant Northrop, told the Financial Times. Northrop representatives recently visited Japan, bringing along a 1:1 model of the enormous "Global Hawk" drone. The same drone, under the name " Euro Hawk" will soon be stationed with the Bundeswehr, Germany's Armed Forces, at its air base in Jagel in northern Germany.
A United Nations report lists over 40 countries that have bought remote-controlled aircraft, although most of these are used for aerial reconnaissance, the original purpose for which drones were designed. So far the only countries to carry out drone strikes, besides the US, are Israel and Great Britain.
This could change quickly, and interested buyers can select from an ever-increasing range of products. The American classic at the moment is still the "Predator," a drone proven in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, capable of staying aloft for up to 36 hours and attacking its targets with "Hellfire" precision missiles.
But the Predator is on its way out and American arms manufacturers are at work on its successor, a model capable of carrying significantly more missiles, to be known as the "Avenger." The "Reaper," another attack drone, is also an enhanced version of the Predator.
Along with the attack drones, the US produces sophisticated surveillance drones such as the enormous "RQ-170-Sentinel," also known as the "Beast of Kandahar." This model was used prior to Osama Bin Laden's execution for surveillance of his hideout, from high elevations and undetected by any radar system. Israel Has Largest Number of Drones in Sky
The US isn't the only country that will profit from the boom in drones. One of the most experienced manufacturers of the technology is Israel.
"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."
"The future of war will come in two stages," Silberring continues. "First, warfare will be automated. Then, it will be able to operate on its own." The command to fire, he believes, will no longer be given by a commander, but generated by an algorithm.
Dangerous First Impressions from China Beijing is also working aggressively to get into the global business of these silent killers, proudly advertising its own drones with names such as "Soaring Dragon" and "Dark Sword."
Chinese arms manufacturers presented 25 new UAV models last year at the Zhuhai Air Show, Asia's most important trade fair. Some of them seemed simply odd, for example a drone about the size of a duck meant to fly by beating its wings.
Others, though, made a dangerous first impression, for example the "WJ-600," which can fire missiles and adjust its wings to match flight conditions. An animated demonstration video showed the WJ-600 attacking a group of American aircraft carriers.
Still, military experts believe Chinese drone technology is not yet as advanced as its American or Israeli competition. There is no question, though, that China's engineers will be quick to catch up. With the US refusing to export any militarily applicable technology to China, the country buys whatever it can from around the world. Germany too has provided engines used in Chinese drones, one exhibitor at the Zhuhai Air Show revealed.
China's largest manufacturer is the ASN Technology Group, whose "ASN-229A" model can fire missiles around 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles). Experts in other countries are convinced China is no longer simply imitating American technology, but has long since begun to work on inventions of its own.
'We're Looking To Fill the Gap'
Zhang Qiaoliang at Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute confidently informed the Washington Post, "The US is exporting hardly any armed drones, and we're looking to fill that gap."
These suppliers are also less picky than the US when it comes to their customers. Israel does trade with Russia and China is courting Pakistan. Consequently, American defense lobbying groups would love to see all of their country's export restrictions removed. James Pitts at Northrop Grumman warns, "Unless something changes in US policy (UAVs) will be another area where in five years we will look back and say, 'gee we missed the boat, the US missed the boat."
Especially in lean economic times, drones seem like an ideal purchase. With the Pentagon expected to cut costs by $1 billion in the next decade and research budgets rapidly melting away, there's hardly any money left for expensive new development projects such as fighter jets. A "Reaper" drone, on the other hand, costs just $10.5 million, 14 times less than an "F-22 Raptor" fighter jet.
Still, many military experts have mixed feelings about this development. David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist who has also written successful, realistic thrillers about CIA work, has shown a great deal of sympathy for the Obama administration's drone program and for the defense industry's desire to export.
Will America Become Addicted to Drones?
But he dreads a world with a lot of fighter drones and few rules, and believes the US is setting a bad example with its remote-controlled executions. "How are we supposed to put up protest when Russia, for example, buys these aircraft to carry out targeted assassinations of alleged terrorists in Chechnya? Or Turkey to do the same with PKK representatives in Iraq? Or China with insurgents within the country?" Ignatius asks. He writes, "A world where drones are constantly buzzing overhead ... risks being, even more, a world of lawlessness and chaos."
Another detraction is that these precision weapons are not effective for use against large military forces. But they're very well suited for so-called surgical strikes, even in high-population areas. This means civilians will suffer in future drone wars, as they already do in Pakistan.
Peter Bergen, an American expert on terrorism, has calculated that drones in Pakistan kill seven times as many low-level followers as top terrorists. According to estimates, 20 percent of those killed are civilians, despite the precision of the remote controls.
However, for Obama drones are the miracle weapons that will allow him to bomb his way to victory in the "War on Terror," a victory his predecessor never achieved. America could become "addicted to drones," Ignatius fears -- and then be left wondering as both exports and competitors' business take off.
American's enemies, be they nations or terrorists, will eventually possess these weapons too. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has referred to his country's first domestically built drone model as "messengers of death," although experts doubt the drone's capabilities.
"Our next great challenge is to deal with the fact that our enemies also have this technology at their disposal," says Deptula, the former Air Force general.
Clear international conventions could help to regulate the use of drones, but the Obama administration is digging in behind legal guidelines established by George W. Bush, which say that those responsible for terrorists attacks may be hunted anywhere, in any manner, with the president deriving the right to use drones from the obligation for self-defense.
A Divide in Thinking
But even for some within the Obama administration, this justification has grown too thin to hold up to the current volume of drone strikes. This September saw an open disagreement between the US State Department, which wanted to allow drone strikes only to counter direct, imminent terrorist attacks, and hawks within the Pentagon, who wanted to keep all options open, everywhere.
Obama's top anti-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, made a trip to Harvard University's renowned Law School to deliver an address on the legal principles behind the war against terrorism, a speech that lent support to the hardliners. According to Brennan, drone strikes against terrorists are also allowed in regions such as Yemen or Somalia, which are not in a state of war as Afghanistan is, but where he says al-Qaida supporters hide out to plan further attacks on the US.
This line of argument has raised concerns even among some Republicans. Presidential candidate Ron Paul wondered whether it might lead to "a precedent of an American president assassinating people who he thinks are bad." Other drone detractors talk of "extrajudicial murder."
So far, the White House has consistently managed to turn a blind eye to the risks of the drone boom, for example the possibility that these weapons could be captured by terrorists. Just a few weeks ago, a 26-year-old man was arrested in Boston for allegedly planning to load model airplanes with explosives and fly them into the Pentagon. The US Army is already at work on deadly drones that soldiers would be able to carry in their packs. Such a model would be ideal for any terrorists who might manage to get their hands on it. The Perils of Auto-Pilot War
Peter Singer, an expert on modern warfare at the Brookings Institution, isn't surprised that what were originally unarmed aircraft have so quickly developed into successful and deadly weapons. The same has happened many times throughout history, he says, for example with airplanes. But Singer expresses surprise at how unprepared we are for a world with many drone-equipped nations -- and for the new challenges particular to this technology.
Those challenges can't be overlooked. Singer describes weapons experts who, like their Israeli counterparts, have long been working on sensors that would allow UAVs to seek out their own targets, not even needing to rely on human remote control.
Automatic homing has already had successful trial runs at a US Air Force base in Georgia, yet hardly anyone has examined the potential consequences of waging autopilot war. "Legal and ethical experts have a hard time countering this, because they simply can't keep up with the pace of drone technology," Singer says.
And once again, those opponents might be too late. The US administration plans to release the latest, updated version of its pre-approved list of arms exports soon. Lobbyists for the drone manufacturers hope this will make it easier for their clients to move their wares.
In Fairfax, Virginia, analyst Zaloga sits in front of his model tanks and planes, already excited for this next development. The restrictions on exports up to now had often been "extreme," he says.