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Drone makers cashing in as war tactics evolve

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SINGAPORE (AFP): They are deadly, hard to detect and fast becoming one of the most sought-after weapons in the air defence industry.

Global demand for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, is heating up as armed forces invest in new systems to boost their ability to carry out reconnaissance and strikes without putting soldiers' lives in danger.

Propelled by a rise in Asian defence budgets, annual global spending on UAVs is forecast to almost double from the current USD 5.9 billion to USD 11.3 billion over the next decade, according to US-based defence research firm Teal Group.

The Asia Pacific is the second largest buyer after the United States.

"Almost every country in the region is trying to get their hands on drones or develop their own... Thailand, India, Singapore, Japan, Australia, Korea," said Jon Grevatt of IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.

Home to more than half the world's population, Asia also has some of the biggest potential flashpoints from North Korea, to the South China Sea, South Asia and Afghanistan.

"UAVs are necessary in this age when you want to win wars and at the same time you want to have less casualties," said Tommy Silberring, who heads the drone division at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).

IAI, which pioneered the development of UAV technology for the Israeli military in the 1970s, was one of several defence manufacturers showing off drones at last week's Singapore Airshow.

Drones have played a crucial role in recent conflicts, with the United States relying on them to strike targets in the rugged tribal areas of Pakistan that are strongholds of Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives.

This burgeoning demand has spurred Asian manufacturers to enter the market, which has long been dominated by Israeli and US companies.

"We want to be in the unmanned arena but we are selective because there are already so many big players in the industry," said Patrick Choy, vice president of international marketing at ST Engineering, a Singapore-based defence manufacturer.

India is similarly modest about its Rustom-1 drone, a model of which was on display at the trade fair.

"Our main priority is to enhance the current capability of the Rustom...we have no intentions of exporting it," said Parimal Kumar, a senior official from India's Defence Research and Development Organisation.

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