As U.S. drone-makers await a change in U.S. export rules that may eventually allow the sale of armed unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to the Middle East, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) is proposing an alternative for Gulf nations: a wirelessly linked, manned-unmanned aircraft team (MUM-T) that provides both strike and surveillance capability while keeping pilots out of danger.

Many countries in the region have an interest in procuring armed drones, for instance GA-ASI’s iconic MQ-9 Reaper surveillance/strike, long-endurance UAS, but are limited by strict U.S. export rules, says Jim Thomson, company regional vice president of international strategic development. Aside from the U.S., U.S. drone-makers are only allowed to sell armed drones to two close allies, the UK and more recently Italy.

Restrictions on armed UAS export have caused tensions with Gulf customers, for example Saudi Arabia, Thomson says. The Saudis have expressed interest in the company’s Predator A-ISR (Improved Predator XP), the unarmed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) configuration approved for export, but have yet to close the deal.

“They know that Predator can be armed and they are not getting permission to get it in that configuration,” Thomson says, adding that this perception caused some backlash. “[They say:] ‘If they are not going to give us the full capability then we will go elsewhere.”

Such tension has led many potential customers to begin buying from U.S. competitors, Thomson says. For now, he is confident Gulf nations would prefer to buy U.S. drones due to their superior endurance and more sophisticated sensors. But advancement in technology will soon lead to steeper competition, particularly from China, he says.

“If they have a need for an armed UAV and it’s not available from the U.S., they are going to go buy it from somebody else,” Thomson says, noting that UAE, Saudi, Egypt, Jordan, and more are already buying armed drones from non-U.S. sources.

Industry is looking to President Donald Trump’s new administration to eventually ease restrictions on arms sales, but the change won’t happen overnight. Thomson is hopeful that the administration may take the first step as soon as next year, allowing firms to sell a non-weaponized Category One system, such as the MQ-9B SkyGuardian maritime patrol aircraft, to a non-NATO, non MTCR ally.  

“I think the new administration recognizes that that we are losing U.S. jobs, losing the edge in being the leaders in unmanned aircraft systems,” Thomson says. "It's very important that export policy be amended as soon as possible to enable us to support the defense and security needs of our allies and partners."

Enter the MUM-T

In the meantime, GA-ASI is offering a manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) solution as an alternative to armed drones for Gulf nations. This technology is one of the company’s big selling points here at the Dubai Airshow, Thomson says.

The U.S. Army has been using MUM-T to wirelessly link its AH-64 Apache helicopters with GA-ASI’s Gray Eagle and Textron’s RQ-7B Shadow UAS for many years, says Thomson.  The technology allows the Apache pilots to receive data from the sensors and payloads on a UAS as far as 40 miles away on a screen inside the cockpit via a data link. The Apache pilot is able to watch in real time as the UAV tracks an operational target and then fly to the target for the dynamic engagement, keeping the helicopter out of harm’s way.

Most of the Gulf nations – Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, for instance –already operate Apaches, Thomson says. The latest AH-64E model can be factory delivered with the MUM-T solution already integrated, an “elegant” solution with above-the-rotor antenna, he adds. The AH-64D models can be retrofitted in the field with the same modification. The older Apaches models can also be modified for MUM-T, as can other rotary aircraft such as UH-60M Black Hawks, but the integration is not as elegant.  

This technology is now part of the baseline for the improved Predator XP, which has been approved for export to the Gulf countries, Thomson says. The new baseline includes an upgraded remote video terminal transmitter data link, which allows transmission of high definition video from much greater distances.

An upgrade to the MUM-T technology will allow the Apache pilot to actually control the sensors on the UAS with his joystick, Thomson says. The Army currently has this capability, but it has not yet been approved for export.