Northern Sky Research

The New Drone Diplomacy

Jan 29th, 2015 by Prateep Basu   More from this Analyst | Profile

U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent visit to India amidst much fanfare was more than symbolic of the regional geopolitics and his ‘Asia Pivot’ policy. Lurking somewhere behind the bonhomie between the two Heads of State was the fate of defense deals, including highly sought after Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).  

India, like other Asian powers Japan and South Korea, has been pushing for a deal for 8 MQ-4C Global Hawks for safeguarding its maritime sovereignty. Unlike India, long term U.S. partners Japan and South Korea have already received clearance for procuring the Northrop Grumman-made UAS, which boast superior Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. 

Rewind to last decade, and the word ‘drone’ would have struck fear and spite among many due to its extensive use in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Their utility in protecting troops from dangers in war zones, and providing ISR data have proven to be unparalleled. But today, drones are increasingly finding new applications such as disaster management, humanitarian peacekeeping, and homeland security to name a few; however, it is Defense & Intelligence (D&I) that continues to be the major interest of States. This has made calls louder for relaxing the outdated Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), under which the trade of these UAS falls. 

The U.S. sale of High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) and Medium Altitude Low Endurance (MALE) UAS such as the Global Hawk and the Reaper means geopolitics and foreign policy will continue to play a major role in the proliferation of UAS. Under pressure from aerospace and defense firms, the U.S. Government is using its diplomatic relations to exempt friendly states from the draconian MTCR, as Israel and China race ahead in the global trade of UAS in this multi-billion dollar industry. And this raises the question – are we seeing a new kind of bilateral relationship between East and West where drones are diplomatic tools?

The Key Words

UAS are distinguished according to their payload capability, range and endurance. UAS have proven their utility in both war zones, as well as for commercial applications like monitoring of oil & gas pipelines and assisting in wildlife conservation. 

Despite a fairytale story of the rapid evolution of UAS in the last decade and half, their usage has been limited by two roadblocks – availability of satellite bandwidth and airspace regulations. With greater payload sophistication, UAS have become more and more bandwidth hungry devices, which has prohibited the use of a full fleet.  For example, each Global Hawk can easily consume 50+ Mbps of bandwidth, which amounts to over 40MHz of traditional FSS capacity. To add to the picture, most HALE and MALE UAS are designed to operate in Ku-band, and this trend is expected to continue given the latency in changes made to UAS designs. Airspace regulations have been less of a concern for the main market, which is D&I.

And We Are Talking about Them Because…

In its recent report titled Unmanned Aircraft Systems via Satellite, NSR predicts the number of these larger, high performance UAS will more than double during the period 2013-2023, as countries stack up their defense arsenal, but this will have to be complemented by capacity planning over regions of growth. 

Due to ongoing conflicts in the region, the Middle-East and Africa will continue to be where most UAS are deployed, but Asia and Europe are expected to have considerable growth in this sector mainly due to territorial disputes, and anti-terrorism activities. 

The Bottom Line

Diplomacy using drones may be a new U.S. tool, but shortage of capacity to support UAS operations is not. The recent drone acquisition plans of countries in Asia and the Middle-East provide an opportunity on which commercial satellite operators can capitalize, and add a bonus to President Obama’s new drone diplomacy efforts.  Availability of bandwidth and throughput will however continue to remain the keywords for these efforts to succeed.