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Pentagon is scrambling as China 'sells the hell out of' armed drones to US allies

A view of the MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft in Indian Springs, Nevada on November 17, 2015.

As one visitor at Abu Dhabi's international defense expo, IDEX, put it this week, "China has been selling the hell out of its drones," to Gulf militaries like those of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia.

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The U.S., while a top security partner to these states, currently does not supply them with its armed drone technology due to strict export regulations. But in the face of record Middle East defense spending and encroaching foreign competition, it's under renewed pressure to do just that.

Lt. Gen. Charles Hooper, director of the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), emphasized changes underway to the Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy, which has thus far prevented the sale of armed drones to Washington's Arab allies.

"As an element of the changes to the CAT policy, we've reviewed and are in the process of implementing changes to our policy with respect to unmanned aerial systems," Hooper told media at the conference Sunday.

"We want to make many of our unmanned aerial systems available to our partners. Many of them have been asking for some time, we're going to move forward as quickly as possible."

Those systems that Gulf allies have wanted include the deadly MQ-9 Reaper, produced by General Atomics, a hunter-killer drone that can carry up to four hellfire missiles as well as laser-guided bombs and joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs). What's been stopping the sales include concerns over proliferation, or risks that it could end up in the wrong hands.

IDEX 2015 International Defence Exhibition in Abu Dhabi. The Arms Fair is the largest defense equipment exhibition in the Middle East.

"We will still continue to vet those cases, look at each of those on a case-by-case basis," Hooper said. "But we do understand that it's a very competitive world out there and we want to ensure that we are doing everything in our power to provide U.S. systems, the best in the world, to our partners."

Why the Gulf is buying Chinese drones in the first place

Simply put, China's weaponized drones are on the market when others aren't.

The UAE has had Chinese Wing Loong I drones since 2016, and started receiving its purchases of the upgraded Wing Loong II in early 2018. The UAVs, intended for surveillance and reconnaissance, can carry a range of weapons including missiles and laser-guided bombs to blow up targets on land or in the air. The Saudis have bought China's CH-4 and the deadlier Wing Loong II, and both countries have deployed their drones in Yemen.

Last summer, Riyadh confirmed that the Chinese were building a CH-4 production facility — the first drone factory in the region — in Saudi Arabia. The CH-4, an ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and attack drone with similarities to the Reaper, is also used by the UAE, Iraq and Egypt.

"If the U.S. provides Predators or Reapers, and the UAE and Saudis start striking more targets — some of which may not match with U.S. priorities — then there could be backlash against the U.S."-Jack Watling, Land warfare expert, Royal United Services Institute

In addition to being able to sell to any willing buyer, the Chinese also offer the lowest prices on the market.

According to Jack Watling, a land warfare expert at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, the UAE's Chinese drone purchases began after the the U.S. refused to sell them American armed UAVs.

Now, he says, "the (President Donald) Trump administration has reduced its threshold for sale, which partly happened after the UAE started its Chinese drone purchases."

Gulf militaries do have American drones, but not ones capable of destroying targets. These include the U.S.-made Predator XP, which can carry ISR camera packages, but it's downgraded so that it can't carry weapons systems.

Still, Watling says, U.S platforms are better than their Chinese counterparts — and if given the opportunity, buyers would likely choose those.

"Chinese UAS (unmanned aerial systems) are not as stable as American systems," he explained. "They therefore have to fly lower, though they are improving. This has resulted in several Chinese platforms being shot down."

'Definitely a threat'

"The Chinese are definitely a threat," Gerard Robottom, international market area director at California-based UAV manufacturer AeroVironment, told CNBC at the conference. But he stressed that reliability is key, adding, "you can find a lot of our customers out here, and they'll tell you the importance of a good ISR from a reputable company."

Robottom's colleagues attested to the lengthy U.S. government process for approving even non-lethal drone exports, which they described as a hindrance to international business.

"This is something the administration takes very seriously," Michael Bedke, senior regional policy advisor at the Pentagon's Defense Technology Security Administration, told CNBC at the event. "As part of the CAT implementation policy ... there were lines of effort that looked at how we could provide more systems and more advanced systems to the region, and how we can speed up the process to allow us to transfer those systems as well."

In November, as part of the Trump administration's push to sell more weapons abroad, the State Department released updates to the CAT policy featuring measures to speed up arms transfers and reduce previous restrictions.

The first task listed in the State Department's policy update read: "Effectively compete with strategic competitors by providing allies and partners with alternatives to foreign defense articles in order to maintain U.S. influence in key regions."

Potential for backlash

But supplying the technology to the Gulf could backfire on the U.S., Watling says. The U.S. provides its allies ISR in exchange for access and leverage; "if they sell the platforms, and the UAE and Saudis get good at using them, then they will be less dependent on the U.S."

And in the current political climate, where international criticism of Saudi Arabia and its role, along with the UAE's, in Yemen's bloody conflict is at a high, the optics may not be particularly welcomed.

"If the U.S. provides Predators or Reapers, and the UAE and Saudis start striking more targets — some of which may not match with U.S. priorities — then there could be backlash against the U.S.," Watling said.

Because of concerns like this, the Pentagon's Bedke stressed that the transfer process would remain on a case-by-case basis. "But the new policies in place will give us more flexibility," he said, "and I would continue to watch this space in the next couple of months to see what happens."

CNBC

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