After policy change, US drone deals beat China

IDD Indepth

Five months after the United States affected a policy change to ease export of drones, the American administration has approved sales of armed drones for countries as varied as India,  Morocco, UAE and Taiwan. In the past six-weeks or so,  the four countries have firmed up deals with US company General Atomics for the supply of ‘Predator’ family of drones.

The US policy change affected in July this year and the subsequent moves, break  China’s  rapidly growing influence in the ‘armed drone market’. India or Taiwan would be a ‘no go zone’ for Chinese companies, which, however, in the past, had sold drones to UAE. Beijing  had even sold some drones to Saudi Arabia, a long standing ally of the US. For more than 33 years, the US was held back by a restrictive cold-war era missile technology control regime (MTCR) which barred the sales of certain items.

Foreign Affairs, a US-based publication  made public a research   in November 2020 showing how 18 countries obtained armed drones from 2011 to 2019 and most purchased the same from China. “11 of those 18 countries bought armed drones from China. By contrast, during the same period, the United States exported armed drones to just one country: France.”

Prior to 2011 just three countries had armed drones: the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel. The rapid rise in drone deployment has coincided with China’s emergence as a major supplier, observed the Foreign Affairs in  its research. Read it here.

How the US changed tack

US brought about a significant change, on July 24 this year,  when it changed the ‘categorisation’ of a specific   unmanned aerial systems (UAS), taking it out of the ambit of the ‘strong denial’ category of the restrictive MTCR.  US President Donald J. Trump, okayed the lowering of a subset of UAS from category I, which cannot travel faster than 800 kilometers per hour, was in the highest restrictions. It’s category was lowered and put under  Category II, allowing easier exports without getting bogged down with MTCR rules. 

The change in policy in July meant Washington was ready to sell to more countries lest its edged out by China.

In the past six weeks the permission for sale of drones is for countries as located as far and wide as Morocco on the north western-edge of Africa to Taiwan located at the western edge of the Pacific. Read the IDD insight here on this

A graphic of the sales in end-2020

What has the US changed

The MTCR, established 1987,  aimed  to limit the export of ballistic missiles and other UAS.  Under the existing rules, a  ‘category-1’ system is that which is capable of carrying 500-kilogram payloads for more than 300 kilometers. These fall under  the ‘strong presumption of denial’  “The United States has determined that it will overcome the MTCR’s strong presumption of denial for this UAS subset,” the White House statement had then said. Read it here

India was inducted into MTCR in 2016. The list includes Russia besides the NATO allies and countries like Japan and Australia. China is not a member of the MTCR. Notably, Israel, is not a signatory to the MTCR and is one of the countries that exports armed UAS to several countries, including India.

India has started off first

After Trump’s  orders,  India was the first beneficiary,  it leased two drones to start off, the secret leasing became public end-November. The drones started operating from a base on the East Coast of India. Indian  Navy Chief announced at a press conference on Dec 3 that the case of getting 30 more such drones is being processed. India is trying to get two separate versions of  the MQ9B  of the predator family — one for sea role and other for a  role over land. The Indian Navy is the mandated lead agency for this procurement. Read it here

US-made Drone MQ9B . Pic General Atomics

On November 3, the US State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States (TECRO) of four (4) Weapons-Ready MQ-9B remotely piloted aircraft and related equipment for an estimated cost of $600 million.  The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale. Read it here

A week later the State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale of 18 drones to United Arab Emirates (UAE)  of MQ-9B Remotely Piloted Aircraft and related equipment for an estimated cost of $2.97 billion. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale. This came after the signing of the Abarham Accord, aimed at normalizing the relations of Israel with middle east countries. Read it here

The latest beneficiary is Morocco. US will be selling four of the MQ-9B sea guardian drones which are a a part of the $ 1 Billion deal for the African country. The deal also includes missiles like Hellfire, Paveway and JDAM precision-guided munitions made by Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing,

In all,  that would be 56 drones, including 30 which India will be looking at.  

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