* Afghanistan drawdown won't hit drone demand, cos. say
* UAVs could benefit from troop withdrawal
* Environmental use, Middle East markets, robust
By Golnar Motevalli
FARNBOROUGH, England, July 22 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
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
"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
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