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

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"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?

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