Global race on to match U.S. drone capabilities

4 Jul 2011 Sandeep Mehta

A quick post for today.  The article Global race on to match U.S. drone capabilities in The Washington Post has quite a bit of interesting data:

More than 50 countries have purchased surveillance drones, and many have started in-country development programs for armed versions because no nation is currently exporting weaponized drones beyond a handful of sales between the United States and its closest allies.

And here is some evidence:

“In an animated video and map, the thin, sleek drone locates what appears to be a U.S. aircraft carrier group near an island with a striking resemblance to Taiwan and sends targeting information back to shore, triggering a devastating barrage of cruise missiles toward the formation of ships.”

Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are popular because of low cost and low risks:

Military planners worldwide now see drones as relatively cheap weapons and highly effective reconnaissance tools. Hand-launched ones used by ground troops can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. Near the top of the line, the Predator B, or MQ9-Reaper, manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, costs about $10.5 million. By comparison, a single F-22 fighter jet costs about $150 million.

Efforts are underway to extend UAV beyond land:

In recent conflicts, the United States has primarily used land-based drones, but it is developing an aircraft carrier-based version to deploy in the Pacific. Defense analysts say the new drone is partly intended to counter the long-range “carrier killer” missile China is developing.

Here is how arms races start:

China’s rapid development has pushed its neighbors into action. After a diplomatic clash with China last fall over disputed territories in the South China Sea, Japan announced that it planned to send military officials to the United States to study how it operates and maintains its Global Hawk high-altitude surveillance drones. In South Korea, lawmakers this year accused China of hacking into military computers to learn about the country’s plans to acquire Global Hawk, which could peer into not only North Korea but also parts of China and other neighboring countries.

Here is an example of arms proliferation (through resale of technology):

In 2009, the United States also objected to an Israeli sale of sophisticated drones to Russia, according to diplomatic cables released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. A smaller co-production deal was later brokered with the Russians, who bristled when Georgia deployed Israeli surveillance drones against its forces during the 2008 war between the two countries.

Here is another path for proliferation: From low cost producers / trailing players to defray costs of accelerated development:

“The United States doesn’t export many attack drones, so we’re taking advantage of that hole in the market,” said Zhang Qiaoliang, a representative of the Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute, which manufactures many of the People’s Liberation Army’s most advanced military aircraft. “The main reason is the amazing demand in the market for drones after 9/11.”

And as a response, US also has to start exporting its technologies:

Vice Adm. William E. Landay III, director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency overseeing foreign military sales, said at a Pentagon briefing last month that his agency is working on pre-approved lists of countries that would qualify to purchase drones with certain capabilities. “If industry understands where they might have an opportunity to sell, and where they won’t, that’s useful for them,” Landay said.

Leave a Reply