Drones finally make it onto the global arms market for sale

Published: July 13, 2012

A number of countries have now come up with their variations of unmanned drones which unlike the US, are on the market for sale. PHOTO: AFP/ FILE

ENGLAND, UK: Having revolutionised warfare for the United States in the last 15 years, unmanned aerial drones are finally going global as the number of countries building and operating them soars.

Until now, such systems have largely been the exclusive purview of the US and a handful of allies. Washington allowed Britain, Italy and Turkey to buy US-built drones and operate them usually alongside US forces, but largely rejected requests from other nations such as terrorism plagued Pakistan keen to acquire the same capability.

But that is quickly changing.

US firm General Atomics expects to make its first sales of an unarmed version of its Predator drones this year, with Latin America and the Middle East seen to be particularly fertile markets.

“There has been very considerable international interest,” retired US Navy Rear Admiral Christopher Ames, now director of international strategic development for the company, told Reuters at this week’s Farnborough International Airshow.

Flanked by video screens showing the firm’s products in action in Iraq, Afghanistan and tracking pirates over the Indian Ocean, Ames said their combat record spoke for itself.

Not only were human air crew not put at risk, he said, but use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) also offered huge savings in fuel and personnel costs over conventional manned aircraft.

“The nations that have been operating with us in coalition… have seen what it can do in practice,” he said. “Their conviction goes beyond what marketing hype can provide.”

Privately owned San Diego-based General Atomics was one of the pioneers of early drone technology, operating them first in the Balkans in the 1990s. While the Israeli military has long embraced unmanned aircraft, recruiting specialists directly from model aircraft clubs, other air forces including that of the United States were initially distinctly skeptical.

But the wars that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001 changed all that. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, US forces have become increasingly reliant on drones ranging from tiny aircraft operated by infantrymen to those that can fly hundreds or even thousands of miles and stay aloft over 24 hours with lethal payloads of several hundred pounds.

Under the presidency of Barack Obama in particular, they have often been the weapon of choice for targeted killings of leading al Qaeda militants, as well as a favourite tool for long-range spy flights over potentially unfriendly countries.

The winding down of combat operations in Afghanistan may reduce the current level of US drone demand, industry executives say. But the global market, they suspect, is only beginning to hot up.

Until now, Washington has remained able to exercise considerable control over even those drones it has sold abroad. Britain’s Royal Air Force, for example, bases the pilots flying its drones over Afghanistan at a US air force base in Nevada alongside their US counterparts.

That, experts say, cannot last.

Drones pride of place

“In the future, if you’re a moderately serious air force… you’re going to want to have at least a medium-level endurance drone with the capability to mount reconnaissance and probably deploy weapons,” says Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow for aerospace at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It also may or may not be stealthy… We are only at the very beginning of that now.”

With aircraft such as Predator and the much longer-range Global Hawk built by Northrop Grumman Corp and recently revealed top-secret and stealthy Lockheed Martin Sentinel — one of which crashed and was captured on an apparent mission over Iran last year — the United States remains by far the leader of the pack.

But perhaps inevitably, the gap is closing.

At this year’s Farnborough Air Show, almost every major international aircraft maker brought with them their own latest drone. Outside its large chalet, Britain’s BAE Systems displayed its long-range Taranis stealth UAV prototype in prime position alongside its Hawk trainer — the aircraft used by the RAF’s Red Arrows display team — as well as a World War Two-era Spitfire.

“What we’re looking at is effectively jumping straight to the next generation,” said Martin Rowe-Wilcocks, BAE head of international business development for future combat air systems. “We’re able to look at those systems that are already in service and learn from them.”

Israel has long sold small unarmed drones to a range of countries, but other producers are also muscling in. Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported in April that Russia hoped to fly its first prototype domestically produced armed drone as soon as 2014.

China has made it clear it is interested in building similar systems, and both countries are expected to have done what they can to persuade Tehran to share its captured Sentinel.

As demand but also international competition rises, some US firms worry Washington’s attempts to slow the spread of drone technology may leave it falling behind.

Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show several countries including United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia asking US officials to buy armed drones but being rebuffed. More publically, Pakistan’s requests for pieces of drone technology being shared have been shown the door.

Washington says its commitments to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a non-binding international agreement designed to limit the spread of long-range precision weaponry, restrict drone export.

US firms disadvantaged?

Industry leaders warn that could see the US drone sector going the way of its commercial satellite production, effectively strangled by export controls seen as effectively killing its dominance of the sector just as new rivals emerge.

“The unmanned area is growing by leaps and bounds,” says Marion Blakey, president of the Aerospace Industries Association. “The Missile Technology Control Regime is something that really needs to be addressed because it’s disadvantaging US industry.”

The export-variant Predator, General Atomics says, should deal with some of those concerns. It will have no “hard points” to attach missiles and would be deliberately engineered to make adding new weaponry impossible, it says.

Retailing at $3-4 million an item, the unarmed export drone is way cheaper than most equivalent aircraft, Ames said.

“There are countries that for a long time have been asking for Predator,” he said. “It (the export variant) opens that up to us.”

Other US defence firms are also investing growing quantities of their own money in new and innovative UAVs. Boeing recently test-flew its prototype “Phantom Eye”, a high-altitude drone capable of staying airborne for days at a time.

Even if foreign markets remain sometimes off-limits, the Pentagon is seen as still keen to expand the use of drones into new areas. Lockheed Martin says it is investing in unmanned technologies and plans to compete for a future US Navy contract to build a next-generation drone that will operate from aircraft carriers.

That contest is also likely to include Northrop Grumman Corp, maker of the X-47B, a US Navy program that is demonstrating some of the initial capabilities that would be packed on the future carrier drones.

Officials say Britain is also increasingly interested in naval drones to operate from carriers as well as a range of smaller warships.

Reader Comments (13)

  • mr. righty rightist
    Jul 13, 2012 - 3:39AM

    Can the Taliban buy it and unleash it on NATO forces?

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  • Sky
    Jul 13, 2012 - 6:33AM

    Until now, Washington has remained able to exercise considerable control over even those drones it has sold abroad. Britain’s Royal Air Force, for example, bases the pilots flying its drones over Afghanistan at a US air force base in Nevada alongside their US counterparts.

    What a pity. Pakistan the front line ally could not be trusted for drones. Talk about trust.

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  • Muhammad Hassan
    Jul 13, 2012 - 9:34AM

    It’d most probably be unleashed on innocent Pakistanis.

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  • bingo
    Jul 13, 2012 - 2:43PM

    after the successful test over innocents the drone thingy is proven and experienced..

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  • Muhammad Hassan
    Jul 13, 2012 - 5:00PM

    @Bingo: A long list of militant leaders openly waging war against Pakistan have been killed in drone strikes.

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  • Ali tanoli
    Jul 13, 2012 - 5:34PM

    Only for peace gonna sell and make billions of dollars from poor.

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  • Muhammad Hassan
    Jul 13, 2012 - 9:11PM

    @Ali Tanoli: The poor are under no obligation to buy it.

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  • billo
    Jul 14, 2012 - 7:22AM

    So will it still violate our sovereignty when Pakistan buys them and uses them in place of US drones over FATA?

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  • Hegdefunder
    Jul 14, 2012 - 8:06PM

    @billo:
    First let’s see if Pakistan can afford to buy any ! As these goodies are not going to be given as freebies by the US and Pakistan is least likely to aquire them otherwise, as there is simply no money left !

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  • Onex
    Jul 16, 2012 - 10:23AM

    These drones will soon start a never ending global War.

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  • usama
    Jul 19, 2012 - 12:59PM

    War is the most profitable business……….

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  • Aussie-Paki
    Jul 20, 2012 - 12:17AM

    Note to friends that cry out on lack of trust from the US side: just look at the current & past performance and debacles caused by extremist Elmer’s within PK establishments, why is it a surprise that US doesbt trust PK? There are a million and one reasons, valid ones.

    Who’s to say that US propriety technology will not be sold to North Korea and other rogue states like Iran? Remember Nuclear technology trasfer by Dr. Kadir Khan? Are we so forgetful?

    US is not all evil, she has her reason not to trust PK, and rightly so they hesitate in selling it to PK. Also while US is using its own resources in problem PK areas there is no imminent requirement for us to acquire the technology. Let’s concentrate on energy generation and human rights within our country before we blame US.

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  • Imtiaz Ahmad
    Jul 24, 2012 - 6:23AM

    Pakistan owning drones? What better us of the money for more useful internal development and straightening the human rights problems that had besieged Pakistan without any resolute ending but going more absurd from day to day especially to the minorities.

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