UV - Unmanned Vehicles

Paris Air Show: Door ajar for MQ-9 Middle East sales

14th June 2019 - 10:05 GMT | by Tim Martin in London

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Large category UAS sales to US allies in the Middle East have been complicated by strict guidelines contained within the international Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) agreement, which is designed to restrict exports of unmanned systems with payloads of 500kg and a distance of 300km.

This is on the basis that such items could potentially act as complimentary devices for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons proliferation.

However, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) is confident changes to international export control protocols will provide the company with amble opportunities to sell MQ-9 Reapers to the region's customers.

For reference, the Reaper has a payload of 2,100kg and a range of 1,850km. 

A clear push by the Trump administration to relax UAS export controls by way of a proposal to change current MTCR guidelines in March, alongside the introduction of a new policy covering the international sale and transfer of US-based military and civil unmanned systems in April, has led to industry readying itself for new market opportunities.

The MQ-9 has a variety of European export customers including the UK, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, but GA-ASI has received interest in the long-endurance platform from countries across the Middle East, including Jordan, according to Barton Roper, SVP of strategic development at GA-ASI, in a statement to Shephard.

The interest from Jordan is of particular note with the country’s air force recently placing a fleet of Chinese made CH-4B drones on sale with an earlier MQ-9 acquisition attempt denied by the US government in 2015.

At the time of publication, the Jordanian Air Force had not responded to a request for information from Shephard on CH-4B sales and replacement plans.

‘The Trump administration’s UAS export policy was a significant first step in normalising the treatment of UAS under US export controls,’ Roper added. 

‘While implementation of the policy remains slow, we continue to see a strong desire from the US government to expand our international market access and compete with China in areas where we had previously been prohibited from selling.’

A shift in the balance of unmanned manufacturing power could ultimately result from the US export policy.

'This could change the dynamic of sales in the large UAS category in the Middle East. Up until now China has had free reign to sell systems like the Wing Loong while US manufacturers have been hindered by the interpretation of the MTCR and the other big manufacturer, Israel, is excluded for obvious reasons,' said Matt Smith, director of analysis at Shephard Plus

'The big question will be whether GA-ASI and others will be able to break the Chinese hold on the market. The obvious benefit is that Western unmanned systems can operate with the other Western technologies in the region's arsenal unlike the Chinese systems which are banned from being integrated'.

Additionally, based on figures from the forthcoming Shephard Plus 'Market Report and Forecast on Unmanned Systems 2019-2029', the latest in its series of market forecasts, MALE/HALE and UCAV markets will peak at $456 million in 2022, with a drop-off in acquisitions in the middle of the decade as funds shift towards sustainment of current fleets before rising again to $430 million by 2028.

The drive toward increasing UAS competition in the face of Chinese systems reaching Middle East nations follows affirmative action from the US government to approve 22 arms sales worth $8.1 billion for Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in May, a move designed to confront Iran’s efforts to counter US foreign policy objectives.

‘Our posture regarding Iran remains focused on assuring our partners of our commitment to enhancing their defence capabilities. This action [of expediating arms sales] is not intended to be an escalatory military step; instead, it is a loud and clear message to Iran that we stand by our regional partners,’ Rene Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary for political-military affairs, said during a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on 12 June.

‘China does not work to expand transparency on the battlefield, and there is no Russian Conventional Arms Transfer Policy that requires action to facilitate partner efforts to reduce civilian casualties, which is a policy we have had in place since 2018,’ he detailed.

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