In the Golden Age of drones, these countries lead the pack.
Unmanned aerialvehicles (UAVs) are not new. Nations have been using drones in combat since at least World War II, and since then they have constituted an important part of the air arsenal. However, over the past two decades, the enormous expansion of communications bandwidth has been combined with the continuous miniaturization of electronic components to produce a Golden Age of UAV technology.
Drones, which were once relegated to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, have become star players in the United States. UU. Wars against terrorism, and now they play a fundamental role in the military institutions of many nations. The United States is still by far the world leader in drone technology.
A decade of extensive operational work with drones has allowed the U.S. Great military experience with the architecture, design and use of UAV technology. While interservice and inter-institutional conflicts delayed the development of drones in the second half of the Cold War, the need for air power in the Wars on Terror caused a massive wave of innovation. The service employs thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles and carries out missions that range from attacking the ISR and the communications relay.
Drone campaigns over Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have captured the imagination, and not always in a good way. Not since the use of B-52s in North Vietnam has an air campaign received so much international criticism. However, these campaigns barely scratch the surface of the contributions of unmanned aerial vehicles to the United States. The United States is also expanding the limits of drone innovation.
Regardless of how the UCLASS UAV program works, it will provide the United States with the basis for a carrier-borne drone capability that can maintain the U.S. Naval aviation is vital. The United States has also been pioneers in working on stealth drones, high-altitude surveillance drones, and other vehicles that meet needs across the spectrum of political and military policy. Like the United States, Israel has extensive experience with drones, having used them for decades as an ISR.
The Predator drone itself has an Israeli pedigree, as some of the first designs came from an Israeli immigrant in the United States. Israel has taken the same capital- and technology-intensive drone development path as the United States, producing unmanned aerial vehicles that perform key functions within a larger surveillance and attack complex. Drones allow Israel to closely and constantly monitor Gaza, the West Bank and South Lebanon, as well as parts of Syria near the Golan Heights. Especially relevant to a country that is as obsessed with the potential of prisoners of war as Israel, drones have also taken on an attacking role, operating in Egypt and the occupied territories.
Perhaps most importantly, Israel has become a major exporter of drone technology, sending unmanned aerial vehicles with support equipment and trainers to a wide range of countries around the world. The extent to which Israeli technology has directly influenced drone programs in Russia and China remains an open question. However, there is no doubt that Israeli technology and production are driving the global drone “race”. The People's Republic of China, perhaps recognizing how lucrative the emerging international market could be, has begun to invest heavily in the production of drones.
China has allowed (so to speak) a hundred flowers to bloom with respect to the production and development of unmanned aerial vehicles, and both large state defense companies and a number of smaller private suppliers are trying to enter the market. This has resulted in a bewildering array of options for the Chinese government, with drones that have the potential to cover many different niches within the PLA's military framework, including counterterrorism operations. China will continue to be a major player in the drone market in the future, and seems to be taking the right path by emphasizing public-private cooperation in technology. This is an approach that the Americans and the Israelis have also adopted.
Whatever threat Iran may pose to the stability of the Middle East, the Islamic Republic is rarely mentioned in the lists of cutting-edge technology. Iran often boasts extremely sophisticated systems (remember the Qaher 313 “stealth fighter”), and many of its statements about military technology should be taken with a grain of salt. However, when it comes to drones, Iran far exceeds its technological weight. Iran has been striving to create the systems needed to deploy a tactical attack drone, but it has done well with affordable and reliable engines and fuselages.
Iran's experience shows that a modest investment can, under the right circumstances, have a high return. Iran has widely used drones in Syria and Iraq, providing the Iraqi and Syrian governments with reconnaissance data and identifying targets for manned air strikes. Altogether, Iran probably has more operational experience with drones than any other country other than Israel or the United States. Iran has also been successful in exporting its drones to representatives, such as Hezbollah, where they mostly play the same role as ISR.
Hezbollah has experimented with suicide drones (not exactly the same as cruise missiles, but not that far away), and Israel can probably anticipate a more complex air environment in the next conflict in Lebanon. The golden age of drones didn't come at the right time for Russia. In the 1990s and 2000s, Russia had to deal with a large, inefficient and uninnovative military-industrial complex, which essentially stemmed from the Soviet years. The development of new advanced unmanned aerial vehicles, especially those that depended on access to high-tech communications networks, did not fall within the reach of the Russian system.
The Russian aerospace industry still has enough strength to produce interesting airframes, and Russia has accumulated enough war experience over the past fifteen years to develop a good operational doctrine regarding employment. Russia also seems to appreciate what unmanned aerial vehicles can offer from a military point of view. So far there is no evidence that Russia has used unmanned attack aircraft in Ukraine, but there is no doubt that Russian forces have used unmanned aerial vehicles to identify and track Ukrainian forces, providing data to “separatists”. Russia has also explored the potential of drones in the Arctic.
There is no doubt that long-range surveillance drones can improve Russia's ability to manage and monitor its vast northern regions. Looking ahead, the United States, China and Israel will almost certainly remain on this list ten years from now. Each of these countries has developed the industrial capacity and human capital to develop drones, and each has good reasons to stay at the forefront of innovation. Iran and Russia could struggle to stay on top.
Boxers can only overcome their weight for so long and, despite the creative ways in which Iranians have used drones so far, a basic lack of industrial and innovative capacity relative to larger military-industrial complexes could end up paralyzing them. The Russian MIC is still extensive, but problems with the Russian economy, combined with enormous and costly demands to reform and recapitalize the entire Russian army, could delay progress on drones. Who could replace these countries? Among the good candidates are India, Brazil and several EU countries. India combines familiarity with Russian practice, friendship with the United States and an innovative technology sector.
Brazil's military aviation industry continues to grow and the Brazilian military can become a reliable customer. France, when it decides to move in that direction, could produce some very effective unmanned aerial vehicles. The field remains open and opportunities abound. .