General Atomics working to save SkyGuardian deal with UAE

 RIAD KAHWAJI

UMEX 2022: Despite the United Arab Emirates withdrawing its letter of acceptance on a US weapons package that included 18 MQ-9B SkyGuardian unmanned aerial vehicles, General Atomics remains hopeful that a deal can still happen.

The goal, a top company official said Wednesday, is to get the larger Foreign Military Sales (FMS) package broken up into individual offerings, which would split the GA drone sale from the F-35 joint strike fighter package — the latter of which has emerged as a flashpoint as the US tries to get the UAE to abandon a 5G deal with China.

“We are here to display the aircraft and keep the negotiations moving forward,’ David Alexander, GA’s president for aircraft systems, told Breaking Defense Wednesday at the Unmanned Systems Exhibition and Conference (UMEX) in Abu Dhabi.

“We are at a stage of negotiations where we are going over the configurations that they (UAE) want, because this can be configured in so many styles to do various missions and so it comes with different capabilities plus a large ground infrastructure,” Alexander said of the SkyGuardian.

The UAE decided last December to withdraw its letter of offer acceptance after the Biden administration froze an agreement, cleared by the Trump administration in its last few weeks in office, for the sale of F-35 fifth generation fighters, along with a significant number of precision strike weapons plus 18 MQ-19B aircrafts.

The $23-billion package was halted while the Biden administration pushed the UAE to abandon the use of Chinese firm Huawei’s 5G communications network. In deciding to cancel the LOA, the UAE appeared to be playing hardball with the US and saying they can take their business elsewhere — a move that reignited concerns that rigid US export policies could pave the way to China to increase its footprint in the UAE and the region.

“So, it is either you can buy from the US, or you can buy from somewhere else, and I think that reality is sinking in, and once you go with another country and buy the hardware, then that’s just the beginning,” said Alexander.

“The real program is all the support and of the logistics that is behind it that goes for 20 or 30 years. Once you missed out on that opportunity, you missed it, and not for that sale but you missed it for tens of years. We have to be careful not to give up.”

As a result, GA is working to keep the lines of communication open with UAE officials. The company certainly didn’t hide its presence at UMEX this week. A full-size model of the SkyGuardian occupied nearly half a hall, attracting lots of attention at the three-day exhibition.

One argument GA hopes will work back home is one that advocates of relaxing drone sales have used for years: that if the US blocks itself out of a market, that market will simply look elsewhere, and China is ready to pounce.

“There is a connection between the heated competition from the Chinese side and the US government decision to ease the export controls. There was a time when this aircraft was so ahead of the game that it was not available anywhere else, but this is not the case anymore,” added Alexander.

Alexander argues that even though there are benefits in acquiring all the platforms in one go, breaking up the F-35 package into smaller and separate deals might be the right way forward.

“We think it would be simpler to separate the products, because each one has its own limitations and constraints and concerns,” Alexander said. “We have encouraged the UAE government to break them apart. It is a political decision by both parties, UAE and US, to have them all tied up.”

The UAE is not the only regional player interested in procuring the SkyGuardian.

“There has been an interest in Saudi Arabia in SkyGuardian for years. Each country in the region has an interest in maritime applications,” added Alexander.

He argued that the sensors and technologies on the SkyGuardian put the aircraft 20 years ahead of its foreign competitors, which will make it very appealing to many customers and ensure the survivability of the platforms for years to come.

“We are excited about the future of this aircraft in the region. Where we are at with respect to export policy from the United States is easing up on the controls, and we see a bright future for this aircraft in this area,” Alexander concluded.

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