SINGAPORE — While the supersonic jets, attack helicopters and surface-to-air missiles longer than a stretch limousine wowed an estimated 80,000 people who attended the final days of the Singapore Airshow over the weekend, it was a small, silent and unarmed weapon that took center stage as major players in the Southeast Asia weapons market hawked their wares.
Military contractors from Austria, Australia, Israel, the United States and other countries showcased unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, throughout the week at Asia’s largest air show, hoping to make deals with militaries across the Asia-Pacific region.
The drones themselves can cost several hundred thousand dollars, and high-end systems can cost as much as $20 million.
Although the United States has used the U.S.-made Predator to launch missile strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen, unarmed versions of the craft are looking increasingly attractive for both military and civilian uses, experts say.
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This is especially true in Southeast Asia, given issues such as territorial disputes in the South China Sea, maritime piracy and terrorism.
“With all that’s happening with the Chinese, pirates, Islamic extremists, it brings new capabilities for different kinds of problems,” said Dan Ze’evi, a retired military officer who is director of marketing communications and information for Israel Military Industries.
Military contractors say the UAVs can be used to watch naval movements around disputed areas, monitor land and maritime borders, and guard natural resources and vital infrastructure like oil and natural-gas fields and pipelines. They also can be used for such civilian tasks as detecting forest fires and damage from natural disasters.
China promoted its homegrown drone, the Wing Loong, with a small display model, and showed off models of its JF-17 Thunder single-engine fighter jet and an attack helicopter, all of which it is trying to export.
No actual Chinese aircraft or full-scale mock-ups were on display.
There were only about 20 Chinese companies at the air show, compared with 173 U.S. companies, many from the military industry, and actual U.S. military and commercial aircraft on display included the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor craft, C-17 Globemaster transport plane, numerous UAVs and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.