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Global race to match US drones

At the most recent Zhuhai air show, the premier event for China's aviation industry, crowds swarmed around a model of an armed, jet-propelled drone and marveled at the accompanying display of its purported martial prowess.

world Updated: Jul 06, 2011 01:55 IST

At the most recent Zhuhai air show, the premier event for China's aviation industry, crowds swarmed around a model of an armed, jet-propelled drone and marveled at the accompanying display of its purported martial prowess.

In a video and map, the thin, sleek drone locates what appears to be a US aircraft carrier group near an island with a striking resemblance to Taiwan and sends targeting information back to shore, triggering a devastating barrage of cruise missiles toward the formation of ships.

Little is known about the actual abilities of the WJ-600 drone or the more than two dozen other Chinese models that were on display at Zhuhai in November.

But the speed at which they have been developed highlights how US military successes with drones have changed strategic thinking worldwide and spurred a global rush for unmanned aircraft.

More than 50 countries have purchased surveillance drones, and many have started in-country development programs for armed versions because no nation is exporting weaponised drones beyond a handful of sales between the US and its closest allies.

Military planners worldwide see drones as relatively cheap weapons and highly effective reconnaissance tools.

Hand-launched ones used by ground troops can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. Defence spending on drones has become the most dynamic sector of the world's aerospace industry, according to a report by the Teal Group in Fairfax. The group's 2011 market study estimated that in the coming decade global spending on drones will double, reaching $94 billion.

But the world's expanding drone fleets - and the push to weaponise them - have alarmed some academics and peace activists, who argue that robotic warfare raises profound questions about the rules of engagement and the protection of civilians, and could encourage conflicts.

No country has ramped up its research in recent years faster than China.

It displayed a drone model for the first time at the Zhuhai air show five years ago, but now every major manufacturer for the Chinese military has a research center devoted to drones, according to Chinese analysts.

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