Drones have had a profound effect on the way America fights its wars, allowing it to fight in new theaters while minimizing the risk to troops. The U.S. has used drones for decades, with early versions flown during World War II and the Vietnam War. But over the past decade, the Defense Department's development and production of drones has rapidly increased. The U.S. military has gone from having just a few drones at the outset of the Iraq War to now over 7,000.
And we're not alone, not by a long shot. The lure of enduring overhead surveillance and strike capability at a safe remove -- and at a relative bargain -- is just as appealing to the rest of the world's militaries as it is to us. Sure, American drone technology is a sought-after brand on the international arms market, but other countries have and increasingly are developing their own platforms. Allies like Israel and adversaries like Iran have used reconnaissance drones in combat since the 1980s and continue to turn out new models. China is taking its lead from American drone models with knockoff Predators and Global Hawks.
Today, more than 50 countries are using or developing unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Here are some of the most interesting.
The Heron TP (a.k.a. "Eitan"), built by Israeli Aerospace Industries, boasts an impressive array of features. It can fly for up to 36 hours at heights of over 40,000 feet carrying a payload of over a ton. For snooping from above, the Heron is chocked full of sensors and reconnaissance gear, including forward-looking infrared, laser ranger finder, electro-optical, maritime patrol and synthetic aperture radar, among others. Significantly, it's also capable of carrying weapons and can reach targets as far away as Iran. The Heron might even lead an attack on the Mullahs' nuclear facilities, jamming cellphone networks and spoofing air defense systems.
It's a step up from its predecessor, the similarly titled Heron-1 reconnaissance drone. Unarmed, it can fly for four hours longer than its more advanced cousin and carries only a quarter of the payload. Still, the original Heron has proven a popular export around the world, providing Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance unmanned spying capability to India, Turkey, Brazil and other countries. Israel successfully leveraged sales of the Heron-1 to a drone-hungry Russia in order to dissuade it from arming Iran with sophisticated air defense missiles.
Israel's been a leader in drone technology for quite some time now, even supplying America with a fair share of its robotic planes. (U.S. drone maintenance crews used to have to learn Hebrew is order to keep the UAVs flying.) In early October, the Israeli Air Force celebrated the 40th anniversary of its first drone unit, Squadron 200. The unit was created in order to help the Israeli air force spy on neighboring air defense missiles without risk to pilots. Squadron 200 first used an Israeli-modified version of the U.S. Ryan Firebee UAV, the Firebee 1241, bought from the U.S. in 1970. Following the Yom Kippur war in 1973, Israel purchased a number of other American UAVs and began developing one of its own reconnaissance models, the Scout, which became operational in June of 1981.