The lethal MQ-9 Reaper drone isn’t often exported, but Taiwan wants it — and the Trump administration is all too happy to sell it, along with a formidable upgrade package, Kris Osborn of The National Interest reported.
Thanks to China’s sabre rattling over a possible amphibious assault on Taiwan with drills and combat preparation operations in waters nearby, and Xi Jinping’s escalating language about possible forcible reunification, the diminutive democratic island really didn’t have much lobbying to do.
In fact, Xi is the best salesman of fear one could ever have, and it has led to a US State Department Congressional notification, a move which could massively improve Taiwan’s electronic eyes on vital areas of the Chinese coastline and waters between them and the mainland.
With the current “gray zone” bombardment of relentless Chinese incursions into the ADIZ, off the coast of Taiwan, this news couldn’t have come at a better time.
The proposed sale is in part due to an interesting policy shift regarding the export of drones to foreign allies which increased the volume and ease with which the US can offer unmanned systems to partners around the globe, National Interest reported.
“Most partners who are seeking it … are looking at it from a maritime domain awareness, border integrity, border-protection capability. It’s not a strategic tool, it’s a tactical operational tool,” Clarke Cooper, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs told reporters, according to a Pentagon transcript.
In July of 2020, the Trump administration updated the United States policy on the export of unmanned aerial systems, Cooper explained.
“This important change benefited one of America’s most innovative industries, and allowed the United States to export additional UAS to key partners,” he added.
New weapons and a mission-scope enhancement for the MQ-9 Reaper adds additional rationale for why US allies such as Taiwan might be interested in acquiring the drone, National Interest reported.
In recent years the Air Force has been adding new weapons to the MQ-9 Reaper, in part by leveraging an emerging “universal weapons interface.”
A universal weapons interface enables the MQ-9 Reaper to more quickly integrate new weapons technology as it emerges and efficiently swap or replace bombs on the drone without much difficulty.
The MQ-9 Reaper currently fires the much-feared AGM-114 Hellfire missile, a 500-pound laser-guided weapon called the GBU-12 Paveway II, and Joint Direct Attack Munitions or JDAMs which are free-fall bombs engineered with a GPS and Inertial Navigation Systems guidance kit, National Interest reported.
The service has also been working on developing the MQ-9 Reaper as a possible air-to-air fighter by arming it with the AIM-9X.
The Air Force currently operates more than 100 MQ-9 Reaper drones and has, in recent years, begun configuring the platform with additional fuel tanks to substantially build upon the current 4,000-pound fuel capacity of the drone with a range of 1,150 miles, National Interest reported.
The upgrades to MQ-9 Reaper are designed to add two 1,350-pound fuel tanks to increase the drone’s endurance from sixteen hours to more than twenty-two hours.
Additional dwell time for the MQ-9 Reaper could make a lot of sense regarding why Taiwan might have an interest, given the often discussed geographical expanse of the Pacific region, often referred to as the “tyranny of distance.”
According to The Guardian, the first phase of drone warfare was dominated by four countries: the US, the UK, France and Israel. The US, France and UK rely on Reaper drones made by General Atomics, a Californian company owned by billionaire brothers Neal and Linden Blue. Israel develops its own technology.
France officially deployed American-built Reapers fitted with laser-guided missiles, in its fight against a militant insurrection in Africa’s Sahel region.
Drones rapidly proliferated in a second wave over the past five years, with Pakistan and Turkey developing their own programs. Since 2016, Turkey has used drones heavily, against the separatist Kurdish PKK in its own country, in northern Iraq and more recently against Kurdish groups in Syria.
China, meanwhile, has begun supplying a range of countries with its Wing Loong and CH series drones, including to the UAE — where they have been used in a string of deadly strikes in Libya — as well as Egypt Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, although not every country has been able to deploy what it has bought.
Analysts at information group Jane’s estimate that more than 80,000 surveillance drones and almost 2,000 attack drones will be purchased around the world in the next 10 years.
Weaponized drones are not cheap: experts say the starting price for the technology is about US$15 million per unit, with more for add-ons, on top of the training and the crews needed to pilot them.
Russia’s Orion unmanned aerial vehicle has reportedly fired guided missiles for the first time, marking a significant step toward the country deploying its first fully-operational armed drone, The War Zone reported.
As well as missiles, the drone has reportedly also been recently tested with unpowered guided glide bombs.