UAE gets American drones as China ramps up sales

The White House’s recent decision to allow the sale of advanced weapons systems to the United Arab Emirates highlights the deliberate shift in US policy towards the UAE after it signed “normalisation” accords with Israel.

Why would the UAE want American drones as it already has dozens of Chinese armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in its inventory? And why has the United States now agreed to these sales, overcoming its traditional reticence to sell sophisticated weapons to other countries?

Chinese armed drones have made a significant effect on the battlefields across the Middle East and North Africa. They have been used to assassinate Houthi rebel leaders in Yemen, kill ISIL-affiliated fighters in the Sinai, and for a time help Khalifa Haftar dominate the battlespace in Libya. While the US has traditionally refused to sell its latest advanced weapons systems, China is not bound by such constraints and has had no problem exporting its drones right across the Middle East and Africa.

Factories under licence to build Chinese armed drones have been set up in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Myanmar. Exports of Chinese drones are so extensive the sales have made China the second-largest arms exporter in the world.

Why are Chinese drones so popular and why has the US held back till now from selling its own combat UAVs?

US reticence

While Chinese drones have been successful, they have a far from the perfect operational record. There have been significant issues with their satellite command and control. While they fly fairly high, it is still not high enough that they are invulnerable from ground fire, resulting in several combat drones being shot down. Despite being relatively cheap, they still cost several million dollars and procurement of replacements takes time. This can result in reverses on the battlefield for the forces they are backing.

The MQ-9 Reaper is combat-proven with an excellent operational record, albeit over non-contested skies. The drones can literally be flown from halfway round the world and the Reaper is the world’s first dedicated Hunter-killer drone, able to carry larger, heavier precision-guided bombs as well as missiles.

The US has been reticent to sell these premier combat drone systems fearing they will either be misused or the technology would fall into the hands of its rivals, such as China, which has been accused of industrial espionage in helping it advance its high-tech military programmes.

To the US’s regional allies, this hesitance to share weapons and technology has seemed hypocritical as it was the US that conducted an extensive assassination programme over Pakistan, with few ethical qualms hindering the campaign.

China has no such problems in selling its technology and has seen its influence grow across the Middle East as a result. Chinese armed drones need Chinese advisers to train foreign personnel and orders for Chinese bombs and missiles are needed as they get used in conflicts and need replacing. It is far easier for new Chinese systems to be integrated into armed forces that already use them. It is this kind of influence that has the US worried.

China has been astute in tying exports of military technology to countries that are an integral part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the sprawling network of ports, highways and rail lines that serve as arteries for the vast amount of vital resources China needs to maintain and guarantee its industrial output in the near future.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has been more than willing to nurture long-term defence cooperation with its partners along the BRI. A recent report (PDF) published by the London School of Economics foreign policy think-tank directly links sales of Chinese armed drones to countries who are part of the initiative such as the UAE.

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