ABU DHABI // Drones are big business. If confirmation is needed, no fewer than 89 companies will be exhibiting their version of the unmanned aerial vehicle at the International Defence Exhibition (Idex) in Abu Dhabi next week. This should come as no surprise. If there is one symbol of the changing face of modern warfare, it is the drone.
The US military's Predators patrol the skies of Afghanistan and north-western Pakistan in increasing numbers. Attacks by the unmanned planes have spiked recently as they target the Taliban and other militants in North Waziristan. So successful has been their usage, there are now hundreds of Predator knock-offs. The Chinese and Russian versions, in particular, bear a striking resemblance to the original. Drones have become a key cog in an increasingly digitised battlefield.
COIN, CT, C4ISR: these terms have come to define what many are calling the fourth, or even fifth, generation of warfare. They may mean nothing to the layman, but counter-insurgency; counter-terrorism; and the tongue-twisting command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance mean big bucks for the companies appearing at the 10th Idex.
That's lucky for the industry. The market is shrinking for new jets, tanks and ships, which are the traditional bread and butter of the defence sector. With budgets for the world's largest militaries shrinking, many of the biggest firms have seen orders for their latest high-tech kit reduced or cancelled altogether. They can partly thank the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for that.
In both wars, a ragtag group of militants armed with ageing or improvised weaponry stood successfully against the most powerful military force in the world. Hundreds of thousands of kilograms of bombs and hi-tech weaponry that kill faster and more efficiently than ever before have not won either war.
The vast majority of successes that coalition forces have had in either country has not come through force of arms, but through superior intelligence. The king of the Afghanistan war is the unmanned aerial vehicle, colloquially known as the drone. These oversized robotic birds of prey hover high above the battlefield sending real-time video feed to military staff half a world away who can then deploy attack drones with the click of a joystick.
The high-tech revolution extends to the soldiers on the ground as well as to their weapons. Soldiers, weaponry and intelligence are now networked via satellite connections, allowing commanders to track soldiers' movements and assign targets. Troops needing to know what's over the next hill or behind a wall need not put themselves in harm's way, but can simply have the information beamed to a handheld device.
Even mobile-phone networks are exploited to track the movements and conversations of the enemy - as long as the targets keep their phones on.
In short, there is a new hero on the battlefield, the software engineer, and an increasing number of companies are cashing in on the trend, even when the battlefield is on the high seas. Lately, considerable brainpower has been devoted to solving the latest armed threat: piracy.
At first dismissed as a nuisance or a bad joke, a flotilla of rusting fishing boats and Zodiac inflatables full of Somali fighters armed with ageing AK-47s now holds the world's shipping industry hostage. The average ransom for captured ships is about US$5 million (Dh18.4m), and piracy costs the industry, governments and regional economies as much as $12 billion a year. Little wonder, then, that the range and number of these attacks is increasing. Once limited to the Gulf of Aden area, incidents have been recorded as far away as the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, quite a feat when you consider that most pirate ships are barely seaworthy.
Traditional military responses have proven futile. The pirates mostly reside in the lawless regions of Somalia, and no government has the stomach to attempt an occupation of that country. There is not even a clear legal recourse to deal with piracy, leading to the release of pirates back into operation after capture.
The stopgap solutions are equally untenable. Maritime insurance costs are skyrocketing, and there is no clear alternative to traditional shipping routes through pirate territory. Some in the shipping industry choose to pay the ransom after about a year of haggling; others are taking matters into their own hands by hiring mercenaries or even renting coastguard vessels belonging to neighbouring countries for defence. Even the sailors are being forced to improvise. One Chinese crew manufactured petrol bombs from a stash of empty bottles to fight off a pirate attack.
If the defence industry can capture even a fraction of the money spent on anti-piracy measures every year, the potential profits are massive, so it's no wonder that defence companies are throwing themselves into solutions.
The high-tech answers to piracy at this year's Idex are as novel as they are varied. High-powered lasers designed to blind boarding parties and microwave transmitters that create the sensation of a severe sunburn on the victims are only some of the tools being pitched as piracy deterrents.
Other solutions are as old-fashioned as they are direct. Abu Dhabi's Tawazun Defence Systems has teamed up with a Russian company, Tsar Cannon, to create the world's most accurate sniper rifle. Accurate up to about 500 metres and effective at ranges up to 2.2 kilometres, the Lobaev sniper rifle is an elegant solution to a complex problem.
The world will no doubt always need fighter jets, tanks and warships. So from tomorrow, hundreds of tonnes of armoured vehicles will be on display alongside the very latest in precision-targeted missiles and bombs.
If you've got the proper licence, you could even grab yourself an under-barrelled grenade launcher or two. There will be daily displays of prowess by tanks, planes and boats. So gearheads need not despair that this Idex will be any less of a spectacle than in previous years.
Even in the high-tech world of a fourth- or fifth-generation war, bombs still matter.