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Chinese UAV roams the sky. Drones like this are becoming ubiquitous

Much discussion has taken place recently over the desire and ability of the US government to “rebalance” our security forces to the Pacific. While the idea of increasing US platforms in the region spurred a brief renaissance in forward basing and operational tempo, it remains unclear if real presence can be increased from a pure numbers perspective. Against this US-centric backdrop, few have looked at a more significant, and troubling, trend in the Pacific. Countries from India to Indonesia are buying, operating, and arming unmanned aerial vehicle systems at an unprecedented pace. And they are not ours.

Worldwide, 78 different countries currently own and operate unmanned aerial vehicles.  20 have armed them.  These are not quad-copters, they are medium and high altitude long endurance UAVs.  When it comes to remotely piloted aircraft, the genie is out of the bottle and there is no going back.  The attraction is the unmatched situational awareness, range and persistence that unmanned systems offer. For an affordable price tag, these systems provide what manned platforms cannot. Additionally, UAVs can be useful in a variety of scenarios to include disaster relief, counter-terrorism, and strike.

Military drones are for sale everywhere

Ubiquitous.  That’s probably the word we’ll be using five years from now to describe UAVs.  And, just like other technological marvels, they are here to stay.  The growth in both military and commercial UAVs is significant and unstoppable.  Who will manufacture them? There is little debate that the most capable and reliable unmanned systems are built in the United States. We naturally assume that US industry would be the first stop for a government looking to develop an unmanned capability. Unfortunately, that assumption is increasingly incorrect.   Simply put, our UAV international sales industry is handicapped.  It’s handicapped by a decades old policy designed to deter missile proliferation that has proven unable to address the growth in medium and high altitude UAVs.

Missile technology control regime

The US is a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).  Ostensibly the intentions of this 34-member group are quite noble.  It was formed in 1987 to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons and associated ballistic missile technology.  Since then its membership has grown and its charter has changed, most notably in 1992 when it was expanded to include UAVs.  Unfortunately, this broadening of the MTCR now puts US defense manufacturers at a disadvantage because it creates a presumption of denial for the sale of certain UAVs; those capable of delivering a payload of at least 1,100 lbs to a range of at least 180 miles.

Global UAV Sales are climbing

In a recent article, Clay Dillow from CNBC.com predicted that global UAV sales will reach $10B by 2020.  Additionally, The Teal Group, a defense aerospace analysis firm, believes manufacturers will produce $93B worth of UAVs 10 years from now.  The global UAV industry is growing and that should be good news for US manufacturers.  However, Dillow goes on to say, “Discerning for reasons both strategic and regulatory, the U.S. has held its military drone technology close, and its armed-drone technology closer still.  Countries seeking armed drones capable of remotely striking targets on the ground are instead turning to China.”

This is disturbing news.  The rise of China’s economy has been steady and predictable, but throughout its rise, US friendly countries have silently claimed that, while they look to China for trade, they trust the US with their security.   That paradigm appears to be changing.

The bad news continues. China is not the only UAV manufacturer competing with US industry.  Israel is also developing and selling UAVs, as are the UAE, Turkey, Italy, Russia…and the list is growing every day.  Israel, UAE and China are reaping significant rewards by not being members of the MCTR. In a futile attempt to hold back the rising tide of UAVs, US policy is hurting American business and driving allies to purchase Chinese products. It’s an incredibly uneven playing field for US interests and industry.  In the words of Pogo, “We have seen the enemy, and he is us.”

Our International policy needs to change

It should be a key part of our international policy to encourage foreign governments to own and operate US-built UAVs.  Building cooperative networks for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) is a key tenant of our Pacific strategy. It starts with interoperable platforms and ends with a true common operating picture among allies and friends. Countries operating unmanned systems from China or Israel will have little incentive, or funding, to modify their systems to work with US infrastructure and it likely won’t be possible anyway. Flying UAV ISR missions is complex, but processing, exploiting and disseminating the collected information is even more so.  It’s not the same as integrating a coalition partner’s fighter or bomber aircraft, it is terribly more complicated.

The vastness of the Pacific region underscores the utility of medium and high altitude UAVs.  Notably, these more capable aircraft often fall into the “presumption of denial” category of the MTCR.  Our Pacific allies aren’t going to be buying Chinese drones anytime soon, but they are are intently looking for something to fill their ISR and strike requirements.  Today, there is a small window to “get it right” with our allies and partners regarding UAV procurement and operation. If we can’t, or won’t, they will go somewhere else.

Final thoughts

No one has offered a fix or clear path forward to the dilemma of rectifying UAV sales with the MCTR.  Sarah Kreps, a distinguished professor at Cornell, in the Dillow piece summarized it this way, “It’s clear that China is not bound by the same set of international standards — they don’t have end-user agreements the way the U.S. does with its drone sales, so it looks much more like an arms bazaar when China is selling these things,” Kreps said. “That will very much affect the international market, and it makes you think the U.S. needs to either be part of that game or try to co-opt China into being a little more discriminate.” Co-opting China is likely a fools game. Seems like a pretty clear choice to me.

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