AIRSHOW-Drones set to gain from defense, troop cutbacks
* Afghanistan drawdown won't hit drone demand, cos. say
* UAVs could benefit from troop withdrawal
* Environmental use, Middle East markets, robust
FARNBOROUGH, England, July 22 (Reuters) - Makers of unmanned military planes said cuts in defense spending and Western troop withdrawal from Afghanistan would not hit demand, and they stood to benefit from fewer boots being on the ground in the future.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, are used extensively in Afghanistan. Some companies exhibiting their UAVs at the Farnborough Airshow this week said they are likely to benefit from a general drive to let robots do dangerous or boring work, taking soldiers out of harm's way.
"(Cuts) will always have an effect ... but intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tends to be the first thing deployed before a battle begins and the last thing before it ends," Ed Walby, Northrop Grumman's business development direct for the Global Hawk, told Reuters.
"In theory, something like a Global Hawk should do well in a budget tightening," he said on the sidelines of the airshow.
The Global Hawk has been used by the Pentagon in Afghanistan since 2001 when U.S. and Afghan forces ousted the Taliban in a military operation following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Unlike General Atomics' Predator, which is used extensively in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, the high-altitude Global Hawk is unarmed and is primarily used to collect satellite and infrared images of land.
The Global Hawk also costs significantly more than the Predator, with a price tag of at least $30 million, something which Walby defended on grounds that it lasts for many years, making it less disposable than a Predator.
Both Washington and London have said they want their troops out of Afghanistan within the next five years and U.S. President Barack Obama sees his troop withdrawal timetable starting as early as next year.
The scale-down by NATO's top two contributors in the conflict does not faze France's Thales (TCFP.PA) either, which is the only company making drones for Britain's Defence Ministry (MOD).
Thales has developed the Watchkeeper drone for the MOD and expects it to be used in Afghanistan from next year. At least six of its Hermes 450 UAVs are leased to the MOD in Afghanistan.
"The MOD still has a big pot of money it has to spend," Thales spokeswoman Kathryn Bell said. "As soon as Watchkeeper goes into theatre we'd expect to see interest turn into much stronger interest."
Walby also emphasised Global Hawk's use in environmental disasters where it has been used to survey the forest fires which devastated parts of California in 2008 and the Haiti Earthquake in February.
General Atomics has reached out to markets beyond the U.S. and Western Europe, tapping strong demand in the Middle East and North Africa for an unarmed version of the Predator. It has also applied for a license to sell to Pakistan. [ID:nN20104347]
General Atomics' head of business development, Christopher Ames, told Reuters earlier this week that the Predator's relatively low cost of $4 million to $15 million an aircraft, sparked growing demand from U.S. homeland security officials, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Spain. (Additional Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Richard Chang)
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