Think armed drones and you will have images of US systems targeting terrorists in Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan and any other conceivable combat zone. But in recent years, another major power has silently overshadowed the US in the supply of armed drones, particularly in the Middle East.
According to media reports, China has sold more than 30 CH-4 drones to Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Egypt since 2014, in deals worth over $700 million. The United Arab Emirates has also purchased Chinese armed drones and is reported to be the 'launch' customer for the 'Wing Loong-II', considered to be among Beijing's most advanced systems.
Interestingly, most of these countries have strong defence relationships with the US. For instance, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have purchased fighter aircraft, naval systems and missiles in deals worth billions of dollars from Washington in the past five years.
So what explains their decision to go in for seemingly 'cheaper' weapons from China? The answer lies in the US government's reluctance to export armed drones, except to its closest allies in Europe such as the UK, Italy and France.
The UAE, for instance, was not granted permission to purchase the MQ-9 Reaper armed drone and was only cleared for unarmed surveillance variants. While not as heavily armed as the MQ-9, the Wing Loong-II is believed to be able to carry at least 500kg of weapons, typically air-to-surface anti-tank missiles and guided bombs, and can remain airborne for up to 20 hours.
While nearly all known armed drones in service today are slower and less well-armed than manned fighter aircraft, they offer key advantages. These include the ability to loiter for dozens of hours, relatively lower radar signature and the virtue of having no pilot, which means there is no fear of losing valuable personnel.
These advantages have ensured armed drones are playing an increasingly visible role in modern warfare where the lines between a 'regular' combatant and a terrorist appear to be disappearing. In a study of US drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2001, New America, a think tank, calculated that 786 such strikes have killed up to 6,100 people in these countries.
The Chinese drones have been used in the conflict against ISIS by Iraq and by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the ongoing fighting in Yemen. Not surprisingly, they have been used for some of the same missions that US armed drones have become famous for—targeted assassinations.
China's eagerness to cultivate strategic partnerships in the Middle East and its alleged lack of concern over civilian casualties, compared with US or European governments, has made Beijing appear as a reliable partner for the sale of these vital systems.
The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, which has developed several Chinese armed drones, claims 10 nations are negotiating to buy the CH-4. While Chinese experts acknowledge the country's drones face a technology handicap in terms of sensors, communication equipment and weapons when compared with US systems, Beijing's political 'flexibility' ensures an enthusiastic market that will only grow.
(With agency inputs)