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Unmanned aircraft poised to fill Asian skies

Publication Date : 28-05-2012


The military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) market will mushroom over the decade through 2020, according to international consultancy Frost & Sullivan, with its value forecast to grow by 60 per cent to US$7.3 billion.

The Asia-Pacific is expected to lead this surge, propelled by regional force modernisation programmes and supported by sustained economic growth.

China, a relative latecomer to the sector, is expected to lead the expansion with a massive 10-fold growth in spending.

"Asia-Pacific countries clearly understand the advantages offered by UAVs. They have seen the benefits from recent (American) operations and are investing," said Mahendran Arjunraja, the lead researcher for a new Frost & Sullivan report.

This development has several clear implications. Together with bolstering capabilities, it should lead to greater self-reliance in a segment that is currently dominated by well-established American and Israeli systems. The export trade is also likely to become more competitive.

Arjunraja's study says the global UAV market was worth $4.55 billion in 2010 and should rise to $7.31 billion in 2020. These figures cover procurement and leasing costs together with ancillary equipment like ground stations. Research and development, operations and sustainment are not included.

The United States dominates the field, but its spending on mid- and large-sized UAVs should drop from $5.09 billion in 2011 to $2.35 billion in 2020. This may be due, at least in part, to Washington already maintaining a mature inventory.

The reduction should be partly offset by 26.3 per cent growth in the Asia-Pacific market and 20.3 per cent growth in the European market, the latter mainly in Western Europe.

The Middle East market will likely grow at a rate of 15.1 per cent and that in Latin America by 19.3 per cent.

China is expected to account for most of the Asian surge. Its UAV market is thought to have been worth $210 million in 2010 and will likely reach $2.27 billion in 2020 - which would place it roughly on par with US spending.

Arjunraja, emphasising in a telephone interview that accurate data on China's military is scarce and these particular figures represent all-inclusive estimates, said: "Until 2008 (the People's Liberation Army) had just a handful of UAVs, perhaps just four or five, and now they have about 25 working models.

"This unprecedented growth is a clear sign that China is investing significantly in UAVs," Arjunraja commented.

"We expect most of their growth to happen after 2015. That's when China is expected to have HALE (high altitude, long endurance) technology, and after that they can export to countries like Pakistan and Iran."

Other countries in the Asia-Pacific involved with indigenous development programmes include India, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. New players emerging in Europe include France, Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey.

"These have strong domestic programmes, but at a nascent stage. The market is still largely dependent on the US and Israel, but things can change in future," said Arjunraja.

The consultancy highlights - together with considering market conditions - advances in technology and rates the degree of technical change through 2020 at five on a scale of one to 10.

Improvements should mainly be in propulsion and endurance, with greater use of technologies such as fuel cells and solar power.

In the US, government-owned Sandia National Laboratories and privately-held Northrop Grumman jointly explored the option of nuclear-powered UAVs. The programme was suspended over security issues and concern over public reaction but may yet resume.

Among armed UAVs, development programmes currently under way in the US are aimed at producing a "loitering munition", also known as a "kamikaze UAV".

Textron Defence Systems is working on its BattleHawk programme and AeroVironment on its Switchblade system, both intended to address the Pentagon's Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System (LMAMS) requirement.

A non-lethal version of the LMAMS, also under consideration, would incapacitate rather than kill a targeted individual. Together with its operational usefulness, such a system could begin to address simmering concerns over the legality of targeted drone strikes beyond the battlefield.

Just what impact such developments in the UAV segment will have on the manned aircraft market, and on the structure and operation of future air forces, has yet to generate wide consideration.

Observers have fretted for some time about the skyrocketing cost of manned aircraft, and particularly of manned combat aircraft. This is most recently evident with Lockheed Martin's fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II multirole fighter, still under development.

"UAVs will definitely have an impact on the manned aircraft market, but we don't see this happening immediately," said Arjunraja. "The next scenario will involve mixed fleets with unmanned aircraft complementing manned aircraft."


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