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Saudi Arabia joins the killer drone arms race

Saudi Arabia joins the killer drone arms race

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Last week, Saudi Arabia bought its first drone fleet, according to a dispatch from Tactical Reports. Saudi Crown Prince Salman met with Chinese General Wang Guanzhong to sign a contract for a shipment of Chinese Wing Loong drones, also known as Pterodactyls. The drones that make up the shipment are designed to mimic America's Predator drone, with surveillance capabilities and enough lift to carry two matched air-to-ground missiles.

Drones are available to whoever can pay for them

If the report is true, it means Saudi Arabia may have joined an exclusive club, one of the few nations with armed, unmanned aircraft. It's a group that, to date, includes just the US, Britain, Israel, China, and (depending who you ask) Iran — but beyond those countries, the capability is increasingly available to whoever can pay for it. At the Singapore Air Show earlier this year, both Israel and China were showing off their wares to would-be clients, including the Pterodactyl drone named in the report, and you could find similar displays at dozens of other air shows. With American counterterrorism efforts providing an ongoing test of how valuable the machines can be, there are lots of countries willing to buy.

"The American monopoly on drones is over."

The US is still responsible for the vast majority of drone strikes, but that may have more to do with politics than capability. A GAO report from 2012 found that more than 75 countries have some form of drone system. Most are unarmed but some, like the systems used in Australia, Japan, and Singapore, could be retrofitted for military purpose. More importantly, the US’ use of drones — more than 50 strikes in 2013 alone — seems to have whetted a global appetite for combat drones. "If you think of this as part of a broader trend of the proliferation of military robotics, then the idea that we were going to have a monopoly on this kind of technology was always a bit far-fetched," says University of Pennsylvania political scientist Michael Horowitz. "The American monopoly on drones is over and probably never really existed."

Israel exported $4.6 billion in drone systems over seven years

International trade barriers have slowed down the spread, but they haven’t stopped it. For US companies, combat drones are controlled under the same agreement as cruise missiles, through an association called the Missile Technology Control Regime. But China and Israel aren't part of the group, and the two countries have begun aggressively marketing drone systems to outsiders eager to keep up with US capabilities. One report from the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan estimated that Israel had exported $4.6 billion in drone systems between 2005 and 2012.

Experts also say Saudi Arabia has previously demonstrated both the interest and the budget for this kind of purchase. "Saudi Arabia and smaller countries like the UAE are trying to get their hands on whatever they can, and the US has pretty restrictive export policies," says Cornell University professor Sarah Kreps, who studies drone proliferation. The result leaves China as one of the only sources available in town.

"Saudi Arabia and...the UAE are trying to get their hands on whatever they can."

One of the biggest questions is whether the new generation of foreign drones can match US capabilities. "We don't know at all about the quality of the pterodactyl," Kreps cautions, "these aren't combat-tested." Since unmanned aircraft rely so heavily on satellite and communications infrastructure, it’s hard to tell from the craft alone how well it will perform in the field. The Pterodactyl is also typically sold for a fraction of the price of the Predator, which has only fueled skepticism.

But even if China needs help to bring its drones up to US standards, that expertise may not be hard to find. UAVs are built on mostly commercial technology, drawing from the robotics and aviation industries. That’s much harder to keep under wraps than military tech like warheads or missiles. As long as there’s a market, there’ll be an incentive to build cheaper and more powerful drones, and the club of drone-armed countries will continue to grow. As Horowitz puts it, "What we know about the history of military technology suggests it will be really difficult to keep a lid on this."

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