AMMAN, Jordan — U.S. drone sales could heat up in the Middle East as the Trump Administration moves to relax unmanned aircraft export policies abroad for non-NATO countries.
And while Jordan prominently displayed one of its Chinese drones that looks eerily similar to a Reaper unmanned aircraft system right next to its new colossal Russian-made Mi-26 Halo cargo helicopter at the Special Operations Exposition here, General Atomics came to the expo with a message to Middle Eastern countries that its unmanned aircraft systems are best suited to accomplish mission sets important in regional operations.
Because it’s been essentially impossible to buy larger drones with laser-designator technology by foreign countries in the Gulf region, area countries have turned to Chinese and Russian technology. Chinese drones are dominant in the Middle East because they are less expensive and there are no buying restrictions.
General Atomics has been able to sell its MQ-1 Predator UAS to NATO countries like the United Kingdom, France, Spain and Italy, but has only sold an exportable version of Predator approved for the Middle East and North Africa to the United Arab Emirates so far, Jim Thomson, company regional vice president of international strategic development in the Middle East, North Africa and the Americas, told Defense News at SOFEX this week.
The company had to design an exportable version in order to sell it in the region due to previous Foreign Military Sales (FMS) restrictions on drones under the Obama Administration.
But with the new policies emerging under President Trump, General Atomics has been advising potential customers around the world, including the Middle East, to go ahead and start asking the U.S. government to buy drones they’ve been eyeing, Thomson said.
The U.S. government will still handle each potential drone sale on a case-by-case basis as it does all FMS, but now there’s a much higher chance of an approval, Thomson said.
Another aspect of the policy opens up the opportunity for companies to sell systems via direct commercial sale, where a company and another country can directly negotiate a deal, eliminating the longer process of using the U.S. government as a middle man.
The policy still has to flesh out, and there’s a 60-day period for industry to provide feedback on the draft, but Thomson believes the crux of the policy will remain and there’s no harm in starting the request process while the policy fleshes out, he advised.
But now that it may be easier for U.S. companies to sell drones globally, industry has to make a case to countries with Chinese and Russian systems that the capability U.S. companies bring to the table is a better deal.
For General Atomics, the cherry on top for Middle East customers is the ability for the company’s UAS to team with manned aircraft and the fact it offers an end-to-end solution from the aircraft, to the ground control, to software and even a system that helps with data dissemination, Thomson said.
General Atomics pioneered manned-unmanned teaming with the U.S. Army early on, pairing its Gray Eagle UAS with AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to fill a gap in armed reconnaissance capability left open when the service retired its OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters.
The systems are designed to pass imagery into the cockpit and give the pilot the ability to control the UAS’ payload. The pilot could also be capable of controlling the entire UAS, but operationally the service hasn’t been big on the idea.
General Atomics has approval to provide MUM-T capability to Gulf countries through FMS, Thomson said.
And Middle East countries want the capability.
“That is a benefit we have over the others like the Chinese or foreign suppliers because the waveforms have to be compatible, you have to have the right waveform for them to receive and transmit and those are U.S. waveforms,” Thomson said.
Additionally, the capability allows helicopters going out to the forward edge of the battles space without satellite connection to stay connected to home base through, for example, a satellite data link-connected Predator that can relay voice communications back to base, according to Thomson.
Predator also has a loiter capability of 35 hours, Thomson said, while helicopters can stay aloft in a mission for roughly four and a half hours.
This means the capability would be especially useful for maritime patrol missions in the Gulf region.
General Atomics has received quite a few requests from Middle Eastern countries expressing interest in the MQ-9B Guardian, which is a maritime patrol UAS that has a maritime radar in the belly of the aircraft, Thomson said.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Morocco all have maritime missions where it would be ideal to replace an expensive manned aircraft with an unmanned system, particularly because the job can be tedious and long to run patrols.
“I think that will be the first domino to fall will be a maritime Predator for one of these countries,” Thomson said, “and then from there we will see.”
Thomson believes the trend is usually for countries that operate drones through their air forces to pick U.S. Air Force drones so there will be a continued market for Predators and Reapers.
But he said Middle Eastern countries that came to the Army Aviation Association of America conference in Nashville, Tennessee, last month, are watching what the U.S. Army is doing with MUM-T and Gray Eagle and “they are seeing the benefits of manned-unmanned teaming that the U.S. Army has pretty much developed,” Thomson said, adding he has not seen other countries with such an ability.
Saudi Arabia, for instance, might be a better candidate for Gray Eagle, because it has the Royal Land Forces. “I could see them being a Gray Eagle customer,” Thomson said.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.