There is a clear demand for unmanned aerial technology in the Asia-Pacific, as territorial disputes and large EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zones) are leading nations to explore easier ways of monitoring their lands and waters.
Importing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) would be the quickest way to do this, but regional nations are also trying to place themselves as strong defence producers, leading to conflict in the Asia-Pacific writ large as to whether it should import, or instead develop, this technology itself. Unmanned technology, while it has been proliferating across a number of different markets, chiefly in Europe and North America, for many years, is still somewhat considered a jewel of the West as far as the larger, sophisticated systems such as General Atomics’ MQ-1 Predator UAV family is concerned. According to analysis published by the Markets and Markets research company in November 2016, North America and Europe will occupy 45 percent and 30 percent respectively of the UAV market over the coming decade, with the Asia-Pacific occupying 20 percent.
Medium- and High-Altitude, Long-Endurance (MALE/HALE) UAVs can effectively operate for many hours while carrying sophisticated sensor suites, subsequently feeding that information down to the operator on the ground. MALE UAVs typically have endurances of between 24 to 48 hours, and can fly at altitudes of between 10000 feet/ft (3048 metres/m) and 30000ft (9144m), while HALE UAVs fly above such altitudes, with similar long endurances, according to publicly available definitions. These UAVs represent technologies that many militaries around the world over want to operate, but importing such systems comes at a cost, and the issue of affordability only comes after a country receives the authorisation to buy in these UAVs in the first place. This is a particular consideration for the import of UAVs from the United States which maybe covered by that country’s International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) ordinance which may prevent the export of sensitive technology.
Asia-Pacific nations in particular are keen to operate UAVs for a number of reasons, including the need to monitor large EEZs, as well as for the surveillance of neighbouring countries with which there are tensions. However, there is a conflict within the region as each nation weighs up the desire to operate such a system versus a wish to domestically develop this type of technology in an effort to bolster their own sovereign defence industries: “Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of China, Vietnam and Singapore and are working on UAV programmes,” Larry Dickerson, unmanned vehicles analyst at Forecast International, told AMR: “Some programmes are more ambitious than others and receive substantially more funding.,” he said, adding that the level of foreign participation in these programmes differs from country to country.
India is a prime example of this trend; it wishes to operate systems developed by the West such as the MQ-1 UAV family, but there is also a government-led ‘Make in India’ campaign that governs all defence sales, and encourages domestic development. The country joined the multilateral Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in June 2016, which opened up a number of opportunities for the nation in terms of the import potential of UAVs and other missile-related technology. MTCR membership is designed to stop the proliferation of missile delivery systems, specifically ones that have a payload capacity of over 1100 pounds/lb (500 kilograms/kg) and a range in excess 162 nautical miles/nm (300 kilometres). UAV technology can be imported in return for member nations restricting their development in systems that could ultimately be used as weapons of mass destruction. India’s MTCR membership has led to a number of agreements being signed between the nation and UAV manufacturers, not least an expected approval for the sale of 22 General Atomics’ Guardian UAVs; a maritime version of the firm’s MQ-9 Reaper UAV family. New Delhi has long wanted to operate a version of the MQ-9 family family, and membership to MTCR, and a push from Prime Minister Narendra Modi in parallel, has led to a sale of the Guardian creeping closer.
Furthermore, a 5th July announcement claimed that Israel Aerospace Industries had signed a deal with Indian companies Dynamatic Technologies (DTL) and Elcom Systems to partner for UAV development. The agreement covers maintenance, overhaul and repair programmes already underway, and will include the transfer of UAV technology and production capabilities from IAI to DTL and Elcom, IAI say, “in order to enable indigenous capability for UAV systems.” The company stated that it: “has been able to build a robust customer support infrastructure over the years, through the support of many high-end local Indian partners … The new strategic collaboration with DTL and Elcom builds on this capability.” DTL also announced in February 2015 that it had signed an agreement with AeroVironment to develop an indigenous version of the US company’s family of small UAVs, the local version of which will be called the Cheel: “The governments of India and the United States of America have selected a next-generation unmanned aircraft system based on AeroVironment’s market-leading family of small UAS as a collaborative project under the India-United States Defence Technology and Trade Initiative,” DTL said at the time.
Mr. Dickerson argued that: “India is looking to establish a defence industry that can meet its domestic needs and compete (successfully) for international contracts against the world’s top providers.” He continued that. “This defence industrial development process has been underway for decades, but India still has a long way to go.” Moreover, Mr. Dickerson argued that India’s missiles, tanks and UAVs are “not ready to go head-to-head with systems from the West or Israel.” This is despite India considering all foreign defence equipment purchases to be interim measures, even though “India has been using these interim measures for decades.” While India had pushed to join the MTCR ahead of its 2016 membership, Mr. Dickerson claims that there is not currently a pressing need to join the regime from other Asia-Pacific nations besides Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea, that are already signatories: “India is working on systems that violated MTCR, but many other Asia-Pacific nations are not (such as man-portable and tactical systems),” He added: “Once these other projects begin to meet the threshold of (the) MTCR, some of the developing countries will need to make a decision on whether to continue to pursue UAV development and join MTCR, or put a limit on technological development.”
India’s occasional PRC rival has been developing UAV technology for some time now, but the specific details of these developments are somewhat unknown, and manufacturers tend to be cagey about the work they are carrying out. It was therefore a surprise that the Aviation Industrial Corporation of China (AVIC) displayed its Wing Loong-II MALE UAV at this year’s Paris Air Show in June. Although it was just a mock-up, the display of the UAV adorned with an array of weapons was an interesting move by the Chinese manufacturer. Said to have an operating ceiling of 16000ft (4876.8m) and a 20 hour endurance, the UAV resembles the MQ-9 Reaper UAV, although the performance of the Chinese aircraft is expected to be inferior. While western countries, and Europe specifically, are not likely to be a target market for such a UAV due to political restraints, the display of the Wing Loong-II demonstrated the PRC’s eagerness to be seen as a UAV-producing country: “This is another example of China’s heavy push to make a place for itself within the UAV market,” Mr. Dickerson said, adding that Beijing has made “considerable strides” in this market given that just some time ago it only made aerial target drones. Its presence in Paris is also likely to have drawn the attention of other nations that could be a market for the aircraft, for example Middle Eastern nations that are likely to be satisfied with a less capable version of the Reaper: “The PRC appears to have adopted a strategy of targeting nations outside of the close orbits of other manufacturers (Burma) and where Western nations are reluctant to provide certain types of systems due to political reasons (Nigeria),” he summarised, continuing that China benefits from being able to rapidly develop and deliver a UAV, while the price will sit lower than those of the Western and Israeli designs that dominate the market: “This is said to have won China orders from countries in the Middle East (Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia) (although) how well these systems are performing is another question.”
Another PRC manufacturer, CASC (China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation), claims it is ready to mass produce its MALE offering, the CH-5 Rainbow, after a 20min maiden flight at an airport in Hebei province, northeast China, in mid-July. The China Daily reported on 18th July that the flight had resulted in a number of nations expressing interest in the model, including operators of the older CH-model UAVs that the company had previously delivered. CASC claims there are some ten users of its other UAVs, and its armed CH-4B variant was notably delivered to the Iraqi Air Force in 2015. Videos were released by the air force of the UAV flying from Kut airbase, in eastern Iraq, on 10th October of that year to fight against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgents that were occupying parts of the country. Ou Zhongming, project manager of the Caihong/Rainbow series of UAVs speaking at the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics, a sub-division of CASC, claimed after the July flight that the CH-5 is “believed to be one of the best unmanned military aircraft in the world.”
A prototype CH-5 was first flown in August 2015, the China Daily noted, adding that it is a composite design with a wingspan of 21m (68.9ft) and is twice the size of other CH variants. Additionally, it can stay airborne for 60 hours, the report stated, which is some three times the endurance of other Chinese models. The range of the CH-5 is 5399nm (10000km) Shi Wen, chief designer of the CH series told the news outlet, and it has a 2200lb (1000kg) payload that means it can carry some 24 missiles for one sortie, something that would enable it to eliminate a convoy of armoured vehicles. Furthermore, Mr. Shi claimed that the CH-5 outperforms all of its Chinese-made counterparts when it comes to operational endurance and payload capacity. He said the UAV “is as good as the … MQ-9 Reaper”, China Daily reported. This is a tall order from the manufacturer of the UAV, and likely to be hyperbolic considering the experience of the MQ-9 family and its derivatives: “Western systems have years of operational history. These Chinese systems do not,” Mr. Dickerson argued: “The West has had years to get the bugs out of their systems and develop an operational doctrine. China has not … There is little information on how well the Chinese systems sold to Iraq or other Middle Eastern countries are performing.” He noted that so far, available data claims that the Chinese systems “get the job done”, but they are not equal to their Western and Israeli counterparts. Mr. Dickerson continued that there are questions surrounding the serviceability of Chinese UAVs, and reports of lower quality electronics, especially concerning the aircraft’s sensor suites: “Many countries are not interested in (or do not really need) top-shelf UAVs since they are operating against low technology threats, such as Iraq against ISIS and Nigeria against the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency,” he said: “Nevertheless, China is not ready to go head-to-head against Western and Israeli UAVs in an open competition.”
Aside from the nations that wish to develop their own technology that can be used indigenously and then exported, there are also nations in the Asia-Pacific that are satisfied with importing UAV technology. Australia is one such example having committed to a number of leading technologies from the US and Europe in recent months. Sales to Australia tend to be easily authorised due to the stability of the country, as well as its legacy membership of MTCR, having joined in 1990. Canberra is planning an acquisition of the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton HALE UAV subject to the company effectively delivering it to the US Navy, which will complement its acquisition of the Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. In addition to Canberra’s planned MQ-4C purchase, the ROK has acquired the overland version of the aircraft, the RQ-4B Global Hawk, while Japan has also been authorised to acquire the type.
Furthermore, it was announced in February that Australia had selected the Schiebel S-100 Camcopter UAV to provide an interim capability to the navy. The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has been searching for a ship-based UAV for some time, and selected the S-100plus three years of support for evaluation in December 2016. Sensor options for this aircraft are still to be determined, but Leonardo has claimed it is pitching two airborne surveillance radar types, the Osprey 30 and PicoSAR X-band (8.5-10.68 gigahertz), plus its Sage electronic support measures, to the RAN. Beyond the S-100, on 25th July, it was announced that a contract had been signed for Australia to acquire AeroVironment’s Wasp-AE small UAV services over a three-year period. AeroVironment will provide the Wasp-AE with modifications exclusive to Australia, as well as local maintenance, training and field support. The company’s family of small UAVs are used in 40 countries, and the Wasp-AE, a hand-launched, 2.8lb (6.2kg) UAV, is the smallest of these. It can land on the ground or in fresh or salt water, so it therefore suited for infantry, littoral and maritime reconnaissance operators.
The Regional Picture
While the Asia-Pacific has a clear demand for UAVs, the region seems to be split in its acquisition approach. Australia, for example, is seemingly happy to trust the technological capability of its US and European allies in the development of these systems while the PRC, on the other hand, will not import unmanned technology, but sees itself as a strong contender in UAV competitions against traditional developers. India is somewhere in the middle, it wants the capability and it wants it quickly, but the acquisitions and partnerships the nation is currently making are considered to be interim until it can produce its own unmanned technology. Only time will tell if emergent Chinese and Indian UAV technology will be up to scratch, but it is missing the invaluable experience that the US and Israel have that comes with being seasoned UAV developers and operators, and it is unlikely that this experience can be easily bypassed.