Latin America: A Burgeoning Market for US Drones

Español The passage of a new Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) export policy in February will enable US defense companies to begin exporting drone technology to nations approved by the United States government. This new initiative has been welcomed by the defense industry, but also by numerous US allies who have long coveted the enhanced capabilities that come with drones.

Unmanned reconnaissance technology is an incredibly valuable tool, especially considering that many modern security threats come from non-state actors. Drones have been operating in both “kinetic” (or combat) and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) roles for over a decade — proving their value time and time again.

The image we have of drone operations largely consists of a few grainy frames of Department of Defense footage, 5,000 miles away in a desert war zone. Soon, however, the same images could have a tropical backdrop.

A New Market

Latin America’s security concerns could benefit greatly from the use of UAVs, as recognized by defense experts inside and outside of the region. With a drug war that shows no sign of stopping after half a century, narco-terrorist groups abound, and violent cartels are operating across international borders. It’s no surprise that Latin-American militaries are seeking UAV technology to give them an edge over their rivals.

It’s therefore only a matter of time before drones take to the skies of Latin America in significant numbers, but questions remain over who will be providing them.

Currently, Israel has the market cornered with over $500 million in sales to Latin America between 2005 and 2012. The recent revision of US drone export policy could change the picture. Defense manufacturers like General Atomics have been looking South for some time, but were hitherto restricted to case by case approval by the State Department – no sales were ever approved to Latin America.

Regional manufacturers have also been making strides in drone technology over the past few years. Latin-American defense manufacturers like Embraer, Avibras, and Avanza have begun pushing their products in the market. Furthermore, these companies aren’t limiting their sales to domestic markets: they have global objectives.

The Brazilian-made Avibras Falcao. (Flightglobal)

A Class of Its Own

With all this competition, will US manufacturers be able to gain a foothold in the Latin-American drone market? The short answer is yes.

Although drones produced domestically and in Israel are relatively cheap (compared to their North American counterparts) and readily available, they simply can’t be compared to US technologies.

Drones, like the General Atomics MQ 1 Predator, have logged thousands of hours of combat operations across multiple theaters around the world; there is a reason that when someone says “drone” the first image in your mind is a Predator loitering overhead.

US drone technology is years ahead of its competitors, a result of bigger defense budgets and greater experience in the field. Moreover, US manufacturers pride themselves on their end-user support – defense speak for the vendor’s willingness to train foreign personnel extensively in all aspects of operation and maintenance.

US defense manufacturers will find no shortage of buyers in Latin America. With insecurity raging and economies expanding, the market is set to increase for the foreseeable future.

Drones for Everyone

Even though this type of advanced technology comes with a hefty price tag, it may be worth it if it gives regional governments the decisive advantage needed to establish security and prevent crime.

Furthermore, this money doesn’t necessarily have to come from state coffers. Washington provides billions of dollars in security aid to nations throughout Latin America; it’s not unthinkable that some of this money could be put towards unmanned aerial systems. In fact, the Pentagon did just this in 2013 when it donated an unspecified number of Boeing Scan Eagle surveillance drones to the Colombian government.

It’s in US interests to encourage these types of transactions. Washington provides the initial aid package, then sits back and benefits from the inflow of capital to US companies — simultaneously strengthening military and diplomatic ties in the region.

Of course, drones aren’t a silver bullet for security failures. Strengthening defense capability is only part of a picture that includes strengthened institutions, respect for the rule of law, and greater economic opportunities to help individuals choose alternative routes to organized crime and terrorist organizations.

Nevertheless, UAV technology will be a welcome acquisition for those nations seeking to enforce peace within their borders and negate the advantages of hard-to-track guerrilla groups and narco-trafficking cartels. We should expect to see US drones in Latin-American skies sooner rather than later.

Edited by Laurie Blair.

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