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As UAV Market in Middle East Grows, US May Look to Draw Back

Nov. 19, 2013 - 02:07PM   |  
By AARON MEHTA   |   Comments
AAI is marketing its Shadow M2 UAV to Saudi Arabia.
AAI is marketing its Shadow M2 UAV to Saudi Arabia. (AAI)
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WASHINGTON — Driven by the need to keep borders secure, the use of UAVs is likely to grow in the Middle East — just as top US generals are looking to move away from a reliance on unmanned systems for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

“In the international market, the Middle East is going to be very important in terms of size and for US manufacturers,” said Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at the Teal Group.

The market for UAVs in the Middle East is around US $260 million this year, Finnegan said. His research predicts the market will be worth $3.8 billion over the next decade, with the Middle East capturing 8 percent of the world market.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will likely be the largest drivers of growth in the region. In February, the UAE became the first country to purchase the General Atomics Predator XP system, a cleared-for-export version of the MQ-1 Predator UAV. Meanwhile, AAI is targeting Saudi Arabia with its Shadow M2 platform, a modified version of the RQ-7B Shadow used by the US military.

Non-US companies, such as Italy’s Selex ES with its Falco UAV, have also found customers in the region.

But large-scale purchases are likely to come from US companies, Finnegan said.

“Americans have a bit of an advantage for a couple of reasons: US companies boost desire of interoperability for US forces, and the big producers are US and Israel,” Finnegan said. “And Israel doesn’t play there.”

While UAVs may be popular, not every country can afford the start-up costs of the systems.

“We’re seeing a desire for UAVs by quite a few of the parties in the Middle East, but those are fairly complex systems,” said Charles Gulledge, program manager for strategic programs with Lockheed Martin. “Some customers are looking for manned-type systems as a service to bridge them to when they might be ready for missions with UAVs.

“In other areas where there is a more robust requirement, we’re seeing interest in manned ISR assets for the short term, which would then be augmented by UAVs in the future,” Gulledge added. “We’re seeing both approaches.”

US Rethinks ISR Approach

While UAV-driven ISR may continue to grow in the Middle East, the US is starting to look at other options.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates set a target goal of 65 combat air patrols (CAPs) for ISR purposes, but top US Air Force officials believe the proliferation of anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) technologies requires a new look at ISR strategy.

“We’re trying to convince [the defense secretary’s office] that the 65 CAP count made sense when it was given, or at least it made sense to the people who gave it to us when it was given, but that is not the force structure the nation needs or can afford in an anti-access/air-denied environment,” Gen. Mike Hostage, head of Air Combat Command, said during a September conference.

“Predators and Reapers are useless in a contested environment. They’re not useless in a total concept, but I don’t need 65 CAPs,” he added. “Sixty-five is not the right number. I need to shift the demographics of the ISR fleet.”

Maj. Gen. Steven Kwast, the head of the Air Force portion of the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), said he believes his study provides the service a chance to look at how ISR is performed.

“Right now, we’re on a path that you want to be able to see everything, anywhere, all the time,” Kwast said during an October interview. “Can we really afford to be able to watch every nook and cranny of the globe 24/7? We can’t even process the information, let alone distill it into decision-quality data.

“Maybe there’s a way of looking at it differently [by] saying, ‘I want the agility, speed and persistence where if something pops up unexpectedly, I can be there [right away], and then I can stay there as long as I need.’ We’re spending millions on this infrastructure that may kill a staff sergeant in the Taliban. Can we afford that? Maybe not.”

While noting UAVs are still useful in certain situations, Kwast said the QDR will question the 65 CAP figure. He noted that the final decision will rest with leaders in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

Retired US Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, who was the service’s first deputy chief of staff for ISR, encourages a new look at ISR. He said the Pentagon is too focused on how it gathers the data, and not what it does with it.

“If we start focusing on output, like situational awareness, as opposed to input measures, like numbers of drone orbits, we can achieve much, much greater capability at much less cost and investment,” Deptula said.

“The demand from ISR is for greater information more than it is for weapons employment. If you focus on how to organizationally best use what is available to satisfy that information demand, you can dramatically increase ISR capability with little or no additional cost.”

But changing the status quo at the Pentagon won’t be easy, he warned.

“It takes beyond status quo thinking to get into play different kinds of innovative concepts of operation,” Deptula said. “That’s what we’re going to need to encourage in an era of constrained resources.”

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