14 May 2018

China Has Already Won the Drone Wars


AMMAN, Jordan — At a military airfield on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, three American businessmen stood admiring the star exhibit, which looked eerily familiar: a large drone, armed with weapons under its wings, with a domed front. “They brought the Predator here,” said one, in reference to the ubiquitous U.S. drone used in wars from Bosnia to Iraq. Chinese companies are proving that America is not first in the UAV export market. Can Trump roll that back?

“That is not a Predator,” another countered.

The drone on display was, in fact, a Chinese unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) called the Rainbow CH-4, which has quickly spread around the world. Jordan bought the drone in 2015 but displayed it publicly for the first time this year at the Special Operations Forces Exhibition and Conference, known as SOFEX, a biennial event where companies market their latest wares.

Once upon a time, the sight would have been unthinkable: The MQ-1 Predator and its successor, the more lethal MQ-9 Reaper, were for more than a decade synonymous with armed drones. But that now is changing, not because Beijing has built a better drone but because it has been willing to sell them to countries where the United States wouldn’t.

For years, advocates of U.S. arms sales bemoaned tight export restrictions on armed drones, which has allowed China to move in on a lucrative market while depriving American companies of valuable business. Jordan had originally requested to buy the Reaper, made by San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, but was turned down. When Beijing subsequently secured the deal, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter lamented in late 2015 that “China is seizing the opportunity.”

More than two years later, China’s growing share of the armed drone market is on display. To date, only the United Kingdom, France, and Italy have bought an armed version of the MQ-9 Reaper, while other U.S. allies, including Jordan, are flying Chinese drones, such as the CH-4.

The United States now belatedly is trying to recapture the armed drone market. For years, U.S. companies were restricted from such sales, in part as a result of the Missile Technology Control Regime, an international pact that aims to curb the export of certain long-range cruise missiles and drones. (China is not a signatory to the agreement.)

But last month, the Trump administration, as part of its “Buy American” push, announced a new policy intended to loosen export restrictions on armed drones. In announcing the changes, Peter Navarro, President Donald Trump’s trade advisor, blasted “Chinese replicas” of American drones “deployed on the runways in the Middle East.” Overly restrictive policies had put the United States in danger of losing out on an estimated $50 billion international market for drones, according to Navarro. “The administration’s [unmanned aerial systems] export policy will level the playing field by enabling U.S. firms to increase direct sales to authorized allies and partners,” he said.

But the new export policy doesn’t appear to have made any immediate impact. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which makes the Reaper, had a modest exhibit at SOFEX and was advertising only unarmed versions of its aircraft.

“We’re still in the process of evaluating the recent Export Policy announcement and its impact on potential sales,” a spokesperson for the company wrote in response to a question about potential sales. “At this point, it’s too soon to comment.”

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