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Aircraft maker pushing exports of spy drones

world Updated: Apr 02, 2010 15:22 IST

The US-made RQ-4 Global Hawk spy plane looks like an upside-down double-decker bus with wings, flies slowly, offers zero leg room and is one of the most coveted pieces of military technology in the world.

Impressed by its successes in combat for the US Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries around the globe are lining up to buy the unmanned "drone" aircraft to bolster their own intelligence abilities, despite concerns that exports might send sensitive technology into the wrong hands.

Some experts said the export of the planes could also heighten tensions with countries like China, Iran and Russia, who could be the subject of closer observation and perceive the drones' operations as offensive threats.

Undaunted by such concerns, Northrop Grumman, the producer of the Global Hawk, just wrapped up an Asian tour in Tokyo with a full-sized mock-up and says that along with Japan other countries considering adding the plane to their air forces are South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Britain, Spain, New Zealand and Canada.

Germany has already contracted for a variant called the EuroHawk to be delivered this year.

"That you're going to see a lot more of these airplanes is the bottom line," said Curtis Orchard, vice president Japan for Northrop Grumman Corp. Aerospace Systems. "There is still a 'boutiquey' feeling now, but there is going to be widespread usage."

Along with the armed Predator, the Global Hawk, which does not carry weapons, is one of the most successful of the new generation of drones, or Unmanned Aerial Systems, and has become a staple of Air Force operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The aircraft is increasingly being used for civilian responses to natural disasters or for scientific research. It recently flew disaster relief missions in support of the Haiti earthquake, providing thousands of images to recovery and relief agencies.