New Kid on the Block: As US Balks at UAS Export, China Steps Up to Fill the Void

By William D. Ezzell

This week, the Wall Street Journal reported on a topic well-known within our UAS industry: China is exporting military UAS systems to many countries, primarily in the Middle East. This includes the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Libya. 

American companies certainly remain at the forefront of UAS technology. In fact, the drones that countries are buying from China epitomize the term “Chinese knockoff.” At first glance, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the China’s Wing Loon drones from the Predator and Reaper models. 

The comparable American models sought by countries like Saudi Arabia pale in comparison to today’s most advanced and classified technologies. So where does the U.S. fit in this market share? The answer: not at the top. Israel remains the top UAS exporter. U.S. laws and regulations prevent American companies from meeting this booming demand. The Obama Administration refused to sell the most powerful U.S.-made drones to most countries, fearing they might fall into hostile hands, be used against civilian populations, or threaten Israel’s military dominance. 

And in light of the Trump Administration’s heated rhetoric on trade, a new series of challenges could be on the horizon. However, American drone manufacturers have launched an aggressive campaign to convince policymakers to change course. 

No one can reasonably dispute the difficulty in establishing a policy that enables American competition while mitigating proliferation risks. But American military export is nothing new and an enormous industry. Hopefully, we will see change in the near future.

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