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Forecasts 2011: UAVS - Battle budget worries

The unmanned segment of the global defence market will spend much of 2011 jockeying for position, trying to find a niche in shrinking budgets. Programmes will have to prove their worth in and beyond Iraq and Afghanistan for firms that hope to keep their unmanned air vehicle programmes alive after operations in those theatres draw to a close.

Reports estimate that annual spending on UAVs by the USA alone will pass $12.7 billion by 2015. But questions remain about whether the tremendous growth in UAV spending will continue under the budget constraints promised for 2011 and beyond. The US Department of Defense has increased UAV spending by 1,200% since 2004, according to the US Army, but that does not seem sustainable, as pressure grows to cut hundreds of billions from the defence budget.

 © Northrop Grumman
Some companies will be looking beyond the USA to expand their unmanned customer base in the coming year such as Northrop Grumman with its RQ-4B based Eurohawk UAV

Some companies will be looking beyond the USA to expand their unmanned customer base in the coming year. Northrop Grumman is expected to deliver the Euro Hawk - an RQ-4B variant equipped with an EADS-built reconnaissance payload package - to the German air force in the spring. The company also hopes to sign a Global Hawk deal with Japan, even as programme managers sift through more than 100 suggestions to reduce the manufacturing and sustainment costs of the high-altitude, long-endurance type.

Even with an uncertain budgetary future, 2011 will bring new firms to the UAV market. The British Army plans to deploy the Thales UK/Elbit Systems Watchkeeper 450 medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV in Afghanistan in 2011, relieving its leased fleet of Hermes 450s.

Boeing will conduct a 10-flight test programme early in the year for its new Phantom Ray, a flying-wing unmanned aircraft, based largely on the cancelled X-45C.

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