Pilot Mark Bernhardt watches a Predator drone from a chase plane as it flies… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles )
The United Arab Emirates is close to purchasing Predator drones from a San Diego County defense contractor, sparking concern among arms control advocates.
Under the proposed sale, revealed this week at a defense conference in Abu Dhabi and confirmed Friday, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of Poway will sell an undisclosed number of the robotic aircraft to the UAE armed forces for $197 million.
The agreement would mark the first time a non-NATO country has obtained the American-made technology, which has reshaped modern warfare. The deal has drawn scrutiny from critics who worry about the technology falling into terrorists' hands or being used by governments against their own citizens.
The UAE, notably the city-state of Dubai, has been a crossroads for banking, finance and technology as the nation emerged as an economic hub for the Arab world. It has only recently begun to tighten regulations to limit money laundering and other shady financial endeavors that attracted Islamic militants, drug smugglers and other traffickers.
Over the last year, UAE security officials — which have drawn criticism for their surveillance tactics — have also cracked down on internal dissent after the political upheavals of the "Arab Spring."
The sale would still need the approval of Congress, and there are federal restrictions on selling large drones. But General Atomics, which builds the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper hunter-killer drones used by the U.S. Air Force and CIA, has designed a new unarmed version of the Predator that would qualify for export.
The remotely piloted aircraft, called the Predator XP, could be used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, but will not be outfitted for weapons capability. The company did not say whether any cameras and sensor packages would be included.
But the drone has the same physical dimensions, altitude, speed and flight endurance — up to 35 hours — as the original unarmed version of the Predator drone first flown by the Air Force in 1995.
General Atomics redesigned the Predator — XP stands for "export" — with the sole purpose of selling it to a broader customer base, including countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
The company said it had received an export license from the State Department to share technical information about the drone, but finalization of a deal is subject to other regulatory approval. Neither the State Department nor Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would comment on the proposed sale.
General Atomics said a number of other regional governments had also expressed interest in the Predator XP.
Frank Pace, president of the company's aircraft systems group, said General Atomics looks forward to providing "affordable, reliable and cost-effective multi-mission capabilities to the UAE armed forces for years to come."
Though the company said the Predator XP cannot be weaponized, there are concerns about turning over drone technology and it someday being replicated as a missile-carrying system. Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Assn. and a longtime critic of weapons exports, worries about the effect such a sale could have on U.S. foreign policy.
"This deal has potentially far-reaching implications for how the country will handle drone exports in the years to come," he said. "Congress needs to discuss and explore the long-term risks to the country and our allies in the region with the potential of the proliferation of this technology. Commercial profits cannot compromise national security."
The UAE, which has also developed its own drone, has been working to counter Iran's influence in the Persian Gulf region, especially in neighboring Bahrain, where Shiite Muslim unrest has driven two years of protests and civil strife.
"The government has carried out a repressive campaign that has targeted Islamists, liberals, activists and scholars alike," said a Human Rights Watch report released last month. "The campaign has systematically violated UAE citizens' rights to free expression ... and employed tactics that directly contravene the international prohibition on arbitrary detention and forced disappearance."
Given the lack of public information about the U.S. government's own drone program, it seems perilous to sell drones overseas, even if they are unarmed, said Naureen Shah, associate director of the Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School.
"The U.S. has set a dangerous precedent with its use of drones as it now sees the world as a global battlefield," she said. "Are other countries also going to claim that vast authority with this technology? I guess we'll have to see."
To reach the deal with the UAE, General Atomics signed an agreement with an Abu Dhabi business partner, International Golden Group, nearly two years ago.