Sunday, September 6, 2009

Unmanned military aircraft: Attack of the drones

From The Economist print edition (3/9/2009) Military technology: Smaller and smarter unmanned aircraft are transforming spying and redefining the idea of air power

FIVE years ago, in the mountainous Afghan province of Baghlan...And in conflicts like that in Afghanistan, they are no longer the most widespread form of air power. The nature of air power, and the notion of air superiority, have been transformed in the past few years by the rise of remote-controlled drone aircraft, known in military jargon as “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs).

Drones are much less expensive to operate than manned warplanes. The cost per flight-hour of Israel’s drone fleet, for example, is less than 5% the cost of its fighter jets, says Antan Israeli, the commander of an Israeli drone squadron. In the past two years the Israeli Defence Forces’ fleet of UAVs has tripled in size. Mr Israeli says that “almost all” IDF ground operations now have drone support.

Global sales of UAVs this year are expected to increase by more than 10% over last year to exceed $4.7 billion, according to Visiongain, a market-research firm based in London. It estimates that America will spend about 60% of the total. For its part, America’s Department of Defence says it will spend more than $22 billion to develop, buy and operate drones between 2007 and 2013. Following the United States, Israel ranks second in the development and possession of drones, according to those in the industry. The European leaders, trailing Israel, are roughly matched: Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Russia and Spain are not far behind, and nor, say some experts, is China...

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