General Atomics May Sell First Predators in Mideast

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. said it won U.S. approval for an export version of the Predator drone, clearing the way for the first sales of the unmanned aircraft in the Middle East.

“There’s interest from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates,” Frank Pace, president of the aircraft systems group at the closely held company, said today in an interview at the Farnborough Air Show near London.

General Atomics recently received U.S. State Department approval to offer an unarmed Predator model to countries beyond the NATO bloc, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, Pace said. That would allow sales in the Middle East and elsewhere to governments previously ineligible to buy the planes, he said.

U.S. Predators are now used to monitor and strike targets in Iraq, Afghanistan and the border areas of Pakistan. Selling the aircraft to countries in the Middle East may ease regional opposition to the surveillance while raising new issues related to how the buyers fly them, one analyst said.

“There could be an argument that if the countries do it themselves, it’s less intrusive,” William Hartung, an analyst at the New America Foundation, a Washington research group, said in a phone interview. “But there’s still a question of how this capability is used.”

For example, a Pakistani Predator that was sent to monitor neighboring India would be “problematic” because such a mission might not be in U.S. interests, Hartung said.

Predator Capabilities

Predators are popular with U.S. military and intelligence agencies because they’re smaller than manned planes and can loiter over a target for long periods without risk to a pilot. Missile-equipped Predators can mount attacks via remote control.

General Atomics see the potential for sales of as many as 100 units in the Middle East and Pakistan of the so-called Predator XP model approved for export, Pace said.

“Saudi Arabia is a huge country, and if they want to cover the country well, they alone could get 50 aircraft,” Pace said.

General Atomics, based in Poway, California, has sold about 435 Predator-series drones, mostly to the U.S. government, according to spokeswoman Kimberly Kasitz. That total includes about 25 sold to NATO countries, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, Kasitz said. The export model also is being promoted in South America and Mexico, she said.

That version, based on the model used by the U.S. Army and the Air Force, will lack the ability to carry weapons and will be designed only for surveillance and reconnaissance missions, Pace said.

Predators range in price from about $4 million for the basic model to about $15 million for the so-called Avenger version, Kasitz said.

General Atomics also builds the Predator B model with extended range and a new Predator C, the Avenger, that can evade enemy radar. Boeing Co., Northrop Grumman Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. also make unmanned aerial vehicles used by the U.S. military for surveillance and armed missions.