CARACAS, Venezuela, Oct. 16 (UPI) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is pursuing plans to develop a home-grown defense industry topped by a drone built reportedly with Chinese, Iranian and Russian help.
Drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles and associated systems have won over Venezuela's military procurers who see the UAVs as a conveniently cheaper supplement -- if not yet an alternative -- to expensive combat aircraft.
Chavez has been hinting at a drone development program since early this year even as he was preoccupied with treatment to cure him of an unspecified cancer and his bid toward re-election.
Earlier in October Chavez won 54 percent of the national vote, calling it a "perfect victory."
Since defeating opposition leader Henrique Capriles, Chavez has redoubled efforts to inject new life into a fledgling defense industry. The drone project is part of that effort.
Chavez announced after a meeting with military and defense officials that Venezuela has made its first drone in partnership with China, Iran and Russia and hopes to start exporting quantities of the craft.
"It is one of the three planes that we have manufactured here, and we are continuing to make them ... not just for military use, (as) much of its equipment is for civilian use," Chavez said.
The drones were developed in cooperation with "Russia, China, Iran and other allied countries," Chavez said during the address broadcast on radio and television.
Chavez has yet to outline the kind of assistance received from China, Iran or Russia but has said said the drone developed locally is intended as a surveillance tool and will not be armed.
Technical details of the drone are still sketchy but Gen. Julio Morales, president of the state-run Venezuelan Military Industrial Co., said the drone is about 13 feet long and 10 feet wide and equipped to take photographs and video.
The craft has a 60-mile sweep and can fly for about 90 minutes and reach an altitude of 9,000 feet, Morales said.
U.S. officials remain skeptical about the Venezuelan drone project and cite examples of previous statements by Chavez that made exaggerated claims about Venezuela's military achievements.
Published media reports said the drone was assembled from parts made locally in Venezuela and built by engineers trained in Iran. Details of Venezuelans undergoing training in Iran remain vague, but the two countries have discussed wide ranging technical cooperation since an exchange of visits in 2010.
Chavez said Venezuela also aimed to develop its own assault rifle, modelled after the Russian AK103, which offers versatile uses and can be adapted to operate with laser and conventional sights and be used as a grenade launcher.
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