Unmanned aerial vehicles increase in numbers

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kislyakov) - On October 11, the Russian government will consider a state defense order for the next three years.

The program covering the period until 2015 is expected to replace 45% of the military inventory in the army and navy. In addition to re-equipping tank, motorized rifle and air landing units, it also plans to build up strategic weapons. The troops will take delivery of over 50 mobile Topol-M missile systems, while the fleet of strategic aviation will grow to 50 Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95 MS Bear missile carrier aircraft.

But, as military experts note, there is one key area in the development and production of modern weapons that is not funded enough despite vast sums - something like 5 trillion rubles - allocated to be spent on armaments before the middle of the next decade. The reference is to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are today regarded as an essential element of an air force in many leading countries.

The reason is that new-style warfare presupposes, first, much improved troop control based on maximum information combined with a timely response to a fast changing situation. Second, targets that need to be suppressed or destroyed, such as military formations or terrorist bases in densely populated area, call for pinpoint strikes. On the other hand, the landscape and combat situation do not always allow artillery to use high-precision fire.

In other words, UAVs can be effective both in collecting and transmitting intelligence and in acting as a strike weapon.

A skeptic may say there is manned combat aviation, which has covered itself with glory in all wars and armed conflicts of the past century. Correct. But times have changed. The price of a human life in modern warfare is by far higher than even several dozen years ago. Besides, every burst of machine-gun fire and every scalpel stroke in a field hospital have a clear money equivalent closely watched by parliaments, countless commissions and, of course, the mass media.

In this context an analysis of UAV losses during the Yugoslav war from April to the end of June 1999 is interesting. All in all, the coalition lost 47 vehicles: 17 by the U.S., 7 by Germany, 5 by France and 14 by Britain. Four vehicles were traced to no specific sources.

The ground forces, on the other hand, obtained a maximum of intelligence information. At the same time the total economic damage from these losses proved an order of magnitude less than from losses that might have been in manned aircraft. Money, of course, matters, but the fact that the brave commanders did not have to present a stars-and-stripes banner in one hand to yet another weeping widow or mother, while making a salute with the other hand, has its worth in gold.

Although old wars are over and new ones not yet launched, it is clear to everybody that something is in the air.... In such a situation the emotion-immune world market in reconnaissance and strike UAVs is growing in geometrical progression. Estimates put it at $7.6 billion by 2010 and forecast its doubling in four years' time.

The main player is, of course, the United States, which is aggressively promoting its sturdy Global Hawk UAV, which has shown its worth on the battlefield already.

Europe looks more modest. Its companies account for only 15% of the world UAV market. Russia is satisfied with 7.8%.

But since this rather specific weapon system is developing swiftly, it is in order here to look as actively for adequate countermeasures, especially since an unmanned aerial vehicle appears very attractive to "advanced" terrorist groups. Indeed, even loaded with common explosives, to say nothing of chemical or biological weapons, a UAV looks more effective than an explosives-filled belt. It can, for example, fly into areas beyond the reach of a suicide bomber.

In the meantime, Lebanon's Hezbollah extremist organization is trying its hand at releasing unmanned birds. On November 7, 2004, the Israeli military were praying to all gods. On that morning, a Lebanese aircraft violated its airspace for the first time in 17 years. For a full half-hour it flew at a low altitude over Israeli territory towards the Mediterranean, where it ultimately fell. Hezbollah described that intelligence-gathering UAV as Mirsad-1.

But the combative Middle East is not alone in acquiring promising weapons in all their variety. Japan also is speeding up its UAV programs, seeing in them a tool for countering North Korea. India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Taiwan, which are far from peaceful, are all asking for Global Hawks.

With respect to Russia, the establishment of a federal agency for arms deliveries and military, special and material supplies will enable the Defense Ministry and the secret services to simplify the procedure for refilling its arsenals starting with next year. Perhaps this - accompanied by proper funding - will give the necessary boost to Russia's unmanned combat aviation.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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