* Export Predator drone unable to carry weapons
* General Atomics sees Latin America, Mid East sales
* Company would like export rules re-examined
By Peter Apps
FARNBOROUGH, England, July 11 U.S. defence firm
General Atomics expects the first sales of an unarmed export
version of its Predator drone within months, seeing the Middle
East and Latin America as particularly fertile markets.
So far, almost all of the more than 500 drones sold by the
firm have gone to the U.S. military, a handful of other U.S.
civilian government agencies, plus Britain, Italy and Turkey.
Other sales have been blocked by U.S. authorities under the
terms of the Missile Technology Control Regime, an informal
international agreement between states designed to limit the
spread of sophisticated long-range weapons technology.
General Atomics Aeronautical director of international
strategy development Christopher Ames said on Wednesday the sale
of armed drones to anyone other than the closest U.S allies
remained extremely unlikely.
But sales of the unarmed export Predator XP - specifically
designed to be unable to carry lethal weaponry - were much more
likely to be allowed and would soon start, he said.
"There has been very considerable international interest,"
he told Reuters in an interview on the company's stand at the
Farnborough Airshow. "There have been countries that for a long
time have been asking for Predator... (the export variant) opens
up those markets to us."
The San Diego-based privately owned company is one of the
world's leading suppliers of drones, but is facing mounting
competition as other aerospace firms - both U.S. and foreign -
bring their own systems to market.
While General Atomics was not in a position to announce any
sales during the show itself, he said the first deals would
likely be announced in the coming months if not sooner. The
total number of drones sold would likely be in the dozens, he
Ames would not name which individual countries were
interested, but said Latin America, the Middle East and to a
lesser extent Southeast Asia were all areas of considerable
U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks showed several
countries including United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia had
previously approached U.S. officials to try to buy armed drones,
but were rebuffed.
Further sales to European states were also possible, he
said, despite mounting budget pressures and several European
drone projects. The company says it believes high-profile use of
both Predator and more sophisticated U.S. drones in Iraq,
Afghanistan and elsewhere have dispelled many doubts about the
once controversial concept of unmanned aircraft.
"The nations that have been operating in coalition with us
... have seen what it can do in practice," said Ames, a former
U.S. Navy rear admiral. "Their conviction goes well beyond what
marketing hype can provide."
A growing number of new functions were also being
identified, he said, almost all with massive o f financial
savings over conventional manned platforms.
At a cost of some $3 million to $4 million a drone, the
export Predator is much cheaper than almost any manned aircraft
capable of the same function, he said, costs less in fuel, and
is often able to remain airborne for much longer.
The roughly $6 million maritime patrol Predator, he said,
could perform many of the same tasks as a large maritime patrol
aircraft with a crew of up to 10 and a pricetag of up to $200
Export regulations, however, were continuing to limit sales,
"I do think the regime could do with re-examination," he
(Editing by Mark Potter)