China has signed a deal with Saudi Arabia to sell it a domestically-made drone, according to a report in Want China Times.
“Saudi Arabia has signed an agreement to purchase China’s Wing Loong medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle, otherwise known as the Pterodactyl I,” the report said. Previously, Popular Science magazine reported that China had agreed to sell Saudi Arabia the Wing Loong.
Want China Times said the announcement had first been reported by China’s Global Times, which itself cited Russian news sources as saying that the deal had been signed during Saudi Defense Minister Salman bin Abdulaziz’s recent trip to China. The deal was signed between Crown Prince Salman and Lt. General Wang Guanzhong, the deputy chief of the People Liberation Army’s General Staff. The reports didn’t specify the number of units the Saudi government had agreed to buy. Lt. Gen. Wang often represents the PLA in dealing with foreign countries.
Although the sale hasn’t been officially acknowledged by either country, this has been the case in the past with Chinese arm sales to the Persian Gulf monarchy. Moreover, the report makes sense as China has pushed the Wing Loong drone as a major potential export.
A report in China’s official media last June said that China had already delivered the drone to three international clients without specifying which ones (it did note that foreign speculation has centered around the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan as nations that had purchased some). It also said it was in negotiations with five countries to sell them the drones.
The Wing Loong was designed by Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute. The program was started in 2005, and the unmanned aerial vehicle took its maiden flight in 2007. According to the Popular Science report, “The 1,100 kg Wing Loong is about the same size as the American MQ-1 Predator and can fly for over 4,000 kilometers in 20 hours. Its 200 kg payload of armaments and sensors includes two laser guided KD-10 ground to air missiles (similar to the Predator’s Hellfire Missiles) or two 50 kg LS-6 satellite guided bombs.”
Although China claims that the Wing Loong is based entirely on indigenous designs, many see it as based on the U.S.-based General Atomics’s MQ-1 Predator. The U.S. Air Force and especially the Central Intelligence Agency has used that drone to target high-valued terrorists in places like Pakistan and Yemen. Given Saudi Arabia’s growing concern with potential terrorists targeting it from places like Syria and Yemen, it’s possible that Riyadh intends to use the Wing Loong in terrorist drone strikes as well.
Chinese media have hailed the drone as having a wide variety of military applications, including “precision strikes and long-duration, long-distance reconnaissance.” Media outlets have also noted its potential civilian applications, such as disaster assessment, environmental protection, and atmospheric and meteorological research.
The rumors of the sale are consistent with China’s growing interest in UAVs. As reported earlier this month, some industry reports have forecast that China will produce over half of the world’s UAVs by value over the next decade.
Moreover, China is widely believed to be eyeing international UAV markets. A report last year by the Congressionally mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission stated, “Chinese companies appear to be positioning themselves to become key suppliers of UAVs in the global market.” Chinese UAVs are especially attractive to countries in Africa and the Middle East given their low cost and the lack of export restrictions Chinese firms face compared with their Western competitors.