How drone technology became a multibillion-dollar industry. Plus, Putin’s economic record and Xi’s biggest test yet.

Unmanned ariel vehicles (UAVs), or drones, have come a long way since their introduction in the first Gulf War in 1991. At the time, they were used just for surveillance and intelligence gathering.

A decade later, a Predator drone fitted with a missile was used by the CIA in an attempt to kill Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

And almost 10 years on from that failed attempt, the assassination of Iran’s Qassem Soleimani became the first time a senior military figure has been killed on foreign soil.

Drones mean troops do not have to deploy into hostile territory, therefore saving lives. Still, there have been many civilian casualties. Under former President Barack Obama, the number of drone attacks rose to 563 from 57 under George W Bush. More than 800 innocent civilians were killed in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

The drone business is a growing industry. According to defence analysts Teal Group, spending on research, development and procurement is expected to rise to $14.3bn by 2029, up nearly 30 percent from $11.1bn this year.

The United States is by far the biggest spender on drones. In its 2018 budget, almost $7bn was set aside for research and development and buying drones.

Despite the US high spending on drone technology, much less expensive technology has been used to great effect. The US and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for an attack on Aramco oilfields that wiped out half the country’s oil production.

China makes a rival to the MQ9 Reaper for the export market, and it is said to cost half the price of the US system. The aircraft has been used by the Iraqi military in attacks on the ISIL (ISIS) group. And Turkey has become the first to attach a machinegun to drone to protect military convoys. And that is not all, they have been flying autonomous drones that can find, track and kill.

But it is not just nations like Israel, Iran and Pakistan that have used drones to target people. Non-state actors ISIL and PKK have used drones in attacks too, drones you can buy from Amazon.

Justin Bronk, a research fellow for Airpower and Technology at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), tells Al Jazeera that the use of remotely piloted drones is an extremely efficient way to provide surveillance and attack options over long periods of time in permissive airspaces.

“The basic technology behind creating something that flies as a remotely flown drone with weapons capability is not particularly challenging so we’re seeing China is, in fact, one of the biggest exporters now of armed drones,” Bronk explains.

Has Putin been good for Russia’s economy?

Russian President Vladimir Putin crushed the hopes of potential acolytes with plans to rewrite the constitution to beef up the power of parliament. After 20 years in power, Putin’s proposed constitutional changes would enable him to grab power after he steps down.

With the constitutional reform, Putin could extend his ability to rule indefinitely. But what of his economic record? Has he delivered for the Russian people?

Charles Robertson, the global chief economist at Russian bank Renaissance Capital, says Putin did an “incredible job” in the first decade or so, helped by rising oil prices.

“When he inherited power, Russia was the size of Belgium, as an economy, and very rapidly, it became the size of the Netherlands and then became even bigger as a top 10 economy now with low inflation, and decent enough growth but people often forget about Russian demographics and forget to strip out the population growth numbers,” Robertson says.

He adds: “Actually it’s doing not that differently from China on a per capita basis for GDP at the moment, or India for that matter.”

Economic cost of coronavirus

The death toll from the coronavirus outbreak in China continues to rise. Beijing has extended the Lunar New Year holiday and businesses shut down to curb the spread of the virus.

A total of 18 cities in central Hubei province now have some sort of travel restrictions affecting 56 million people and authorities are rushing to build a hospital to accommodate 1,000 beds to treat victims.

Now the virus has spread beyond neighbouring countries to Australia, Canada, France and the US.

And just when the Chinese authorities hoped the economy would begin to pick up after signing a phase one trade deal with the US, it is already having to count the cost of yet another outbreak after the SARS crisis.

Patrick Perret-Green, head of global macroeconomic strategy at AdMacro, explains: “We’re only just beginning to appreciate the wider effects. We’re talking about unprecedented action. Major cities being shut down, business enterprises being closed until at least February 9.”

He later adds: “Chinese tourism is another area where we are going to see a major, major collapse. Because Chinese consumer confidence is not going to come back from this very quickly.”