Despite all the publicity American UAVs receive, the major exporter of UAVs in the last decade has been Israel. Between 2002 and 2012, Israel exported $4.7 billion worth of UAVs, about twice as much as the U.S. exported. Part of this was due to the U.S. military demand for UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan, which was largely met by American suppliers. But there were also U.S. government restrictions on American UAV exports. These still exist, for political (no weapons and a long list of countries that cannot buy) and security (many countries cannot be trusted to keep American secrets secret). These restrictions are becoming a major issue for U.S. UAV manufacturers because Israel already has a head start as an exporter and China (using copies of many Israeli and U.S. UAVs) is coming up fast. The UAV market is expected to double (to over $11 billion a year) in the next decade and American firms have to export to survive because the American military has cut purchases way back and will not be buying much for the next five years (or more).
It’s understandable that the Israelis are leading exporters, as they developed a lot of the basic technology that made possible best-selling American models (like Predator and Raven). Israel kept developing UAV tech after successful American designs appeared. As a result of this trend, in the last decade nations have found that if they wanted American style UAVs but often could no buy American for whatever reason. But the Israelis probably had what you needed, and often at a better price.
Take, for example, the well-known American MQ-1 Predator. This is a one ton aircraft that is 8.7 meters (27 feet) long with a wingspan of 15.8 meters (49 feet). It has two hard points, which usually carry one (47 kg/107 pound) Hellfire each. Max speed of the Predator is 215 kilometers an hour while max cruising speed is 160 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 8,000 meters (25,000 feet). Typical sorties are 12-20 hours each. The Predator evolved from concepts and UAV designs developed in Israel and Israel has long offered cheaper (and often similar looking) models that did what Predator did.
Before the Predator there was the Gnat 750 and I-Gnat ER/ Sky Warrior Alpha. These looked like Predator and in terms of design and capabilities they were cousins, not siblings. The Gnat is a 1980s design that was used in Iraq, along with and the I-Gnat ER, which was similar in size and capabilities to Predator. All of these UAVs evolved from earlier Israeli designs and UAV concepts.
Another UAV with Israeli DNA was the Shadow 200. This was a 159 kg (350 pound) UAV that carries day and night cameras and laser designators but usually no weapons. Shadow is being replaced by the much larger MQ-1C. This “improved Predator” weighs 1.5 tons, carries 135.4 kg (300 pounds) of sensors internally, and up to 227.3 kg (500 pounds) of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of up to 36 hours and a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour. MQ-1C has a wingspan of 18 meters (56 feet) and is 9 meters (28 feet) long. The MQ-1C can carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator) or a dozen smaller 70mm guided missiles. Each MQ-1C costs about $10 million. The army uses warrant officers as operators. The MQ-1C has automated takeoff and landing software and is equipped with a full array of electronics (target designators and digital communications so troops on the ground can see what the UAV sees).
As its model number (MQ-1C) indicates, this UAV is a Predator (MQ-1) replacement. The U.S. Air Force had planned to replace its MQ-1s with MQ-1Cs but later decided to buy only larger Reapers. The MQ-1C was developed for the army. The last member of the Predator family is the MQ-9 Reaper. This is a 4.7 ton, 11 meter (36 foot) long aircraft with a 20 meter (66 foot) wingspan that looks like the MQ-1. It has six hard points and can carry about a ton (2,400 pounds) of weapons. These include Hellfire missiles (up to eight), two Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, two Maverick missiles, or two 227 kg (500) pound smart bombs (laser or GPS guided). Max speed is 400 kilometers an hour, and max endurance is 15 hours. The Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, to replace F-16s or A-10s in ground support missions.
The most numerous U.S. Army UAVs are the micro-UAVs (Ravens and Pumas). There are over 6,000 of these tiny (under six kg/13.2 pound) reconnaissance aircraft in army service. They are the most heavily used UAVs. The RQ-11 Raven is a two kilogram (4.4 pound) aircraft popular with combat and non-combat troops alike. The current RQ-11B can stay in the air for 80 minutes at a time. The Raven is battery powered (and largely silent unless flown close to the ground). It carries a color day vidcam or a two color infrared night camera. The larger (5.9 kg) Puma AE UAV can stay in the air twice as long as Raven, is more resistant to bad weather, and carries better sensors.
Israel has UAVs similar in capabilities to all those mentioned above, and in many cases the Israeli versions got into service first. But that won’t do much good with the Chinese closing in. Both the U.S. and Israel are nervous about Chinese entry into the UAV market. The Chinese stuff is often copied or stolen tech and usually not as effective or reliable. But the Chinese stuff is cheaper and they will sell anything to anyone who can pay. The Chinese pay more attention to Israeli UAVs and sales methods than those of the United States. Israel exports 80 percent of its UAVs and has customers in fifty countries. Unlike the United States, Israeli UAVs can operate within Israel and are heavily used by the Israeli military. This gives Israeli UAVs that “combat proven” seal of approval.