China is at the leading edge of drone technology. Above, an artist's impression of the Guizhou Soar Dragon high-altitude, long range UAV being developed for recon and attack modes. Credit: Flickr.

The proverbial cat is out of the bag at the 2021 IDEX military show in Abu Dhabi.

Back in November 2020, China North Industries Group Corporation Limited (NORINCO) announced its Golden Eagle CR500 vertical take-off and landing UAV had completed final inspections and been cleared for delivery to an undisclosed costumer.

We now know who that customer is.

According to a report by Chyrine Mezher for Breaking Defense and quoting an anonymous source, the UAE army plans to buy a bunch of new Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles.

“The deals could include 10 to 15 Golden Eagle CR500 helo drones fitted with Red Arrow 12 missiles, and 20 MR40 unmanned aircraft fitted with BBE-2 bombs,” the official said, adding that both deals will approximately cost US$9 million and US$7 million respectively.

The UAE is also set to receive “thousands of related missile systems,” he added, with the CR500 being able carry up to 150KG of payloads. “We expect the first trials to take place in October and deliveries to start within a year.”

IDEX, by the way, is the only international defence exhibition and conference in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) demonstrating the latest technology across land, sea and air sectors of defence.

It draws defense firms from around the world, and for the first time this year, Israel also attended the show.

Although Israel has had quiet dealing with the United Arab Emirates and some Gulf states for years, the ability to seek joint ventures and partnerships openly is new, National Interest reported.

This has all come about in the wake of the Abraham Accords last year which saw Bahrain and the UAE normalize relations.

According to a Chinese spokesperson, the CR500 has an endurance of up to five hours and can fly up to 3,000 meters, while the MH40 can fly for about 30 minutes over a 5-km range while it performs reconnaissance and research missions, Breaking Defense reported.

NORINCO has said the CR500 Golden Eagle is a coaxial rotor helicopter drone designed for multiple missions including battlefield reconnaissance, target positioning and illuminating, communication relay and battle damage assessment.

“The drone can carry a large payload, has a long endurance even when fully loaded, and a compact structure that can be easily stored and transported. It can also resist strong winds, carry different types of electro-optical pods and payloads, and act as a logistics support craft and deliver materials with pinpoint accuracy,” the company says.

The MR40-series is equipped with four rotors and could be fitted with search and targeting radars and reconnaissance subsystems and armed with an array of weapons, including guided missiles and fragmentation bombs, Breaking Defense reported.

This comes in light of a relatively new Emirati-Chinese strategy to work on long-term R&D projects for unmanned systems, which was obvious at the show.

Located directly in front of UAE’s agglomerate EDGE Group, was the China-Emirates Science and Technology innovation laboratory (CEST), a joint project between UAE’s International Golden Group and NORINCO, Breaking Defense reported.

“This project has been going on for more than a year now and focuses on research and development within the field of UAVs,” disclosed the Chinese spokesperson. “Being here at IDEX adds so much value to our work and proves our commitment to the UAE defense industry and the region.”

CEST showcased a wide range of Chinese products at IDEX but mainly focused on unmanned systems and their missiles including the CR500, MR40 and MR150 UAVs.

Meanwhile, the overall exhibition saw reports of more than US$1 billion in deals announced the first day, National Interest reported.

IDEX runs from February 21 for five days.

Omar bin Sultan Al Olama, Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, Digital Economy and Teleworking Applications, said that the UAE is a country that looks ahead.

“We plan proactively rather than reactively to changes, and artificial intelligence will reshape the world as we know it. We are seeing an increasing infusion of systems that are productive and critical to our economies. Defending these systems is as critical as defending the sovereignty of our nation,” he said.

According to Al Jazeera, Chinese armed drones have made a significant effect on the battlefields across the Middle East and North Africa.

They have been used to assassinate Houthi rebel leaders in Yemen, kill ISIL-affiliated fighters in the Sinai, and for a time help Khalifa Haftar dominate the battlespace in Libya.

While the US has traditionally refused to sell its latest advanced weapons systems, China is not bound by such constraints and has had no problem exporting its drones right across the Middle East and Africa. 

Factories under licence to build Chinese armed drones have been set up in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Myanmar. Exports of Chinese drones are so extensive the sales have made China the second-largest arms exporter in the world.