Jordan, one of America’s partners in the fight against the Islamic State, is reaching out to China to acquire armed drones — at least according to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. “I am now aware that China is presently in Jordan to discuss operations, logistics and maintenance associated with the urgent sale of weaponized unmanned systems,” Duncan wrote to President Barack Obama in a letter dated May 14.
The letter urges the president to give “serious consideration to allowing Jordan to immediately utilize existing MQ-1 [Predator UAV] or alternate assets as their requests for specific military assistance are further weighed. I am confident that we can curtail Jordan’s interest in Chinese assets by taking immediate action.”
A congressional staffer familiar with the matter said Hunter learned about the Chinese visit from “very high placed” sources in Jordan. The staffer declined to go into further detail.
In short: Hunter wants the White House to get U.S.-made armed drones to the Jordanians before they can close any deal with China, and he thinks the Pentagon could do that quickly and easily by lending them Air Force drones.
Hunter has pitched this idea before. In a March letter, he and 22 other lawmakers urged the White House to allow Jordan to fly Air Force Predators: “Under this proposal, Jordanian pilots would fly the operational missions but the assets themselves would remain under the ownership of the Air Force. Asset maintenance, launch and recovery would be the responsibility of General Atomics—the designer and the manufacturer of the MQ-1. The request, if approved, would ensure Jordan is able to quickly acquire this much needed advanced capability as it confronts IS.”
Getting the MQ-1 into Jordan’s hands would therefore also serve General Atomics, which happens to be Hunter’s largest overall campaign contributor. The privately held company, which is headquartered near Hunter’s southern California district, was his second-largest campaign contributor in 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2010, Hunter requested $26 million in earmarks for General Atomics.
Pentagon higher-ups are at least considering the proposal. In a House Armed Services Committee hearing on March 18, Hunter pitched the idea to Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey. Hunter noted that it would be difficult to sell drones to Jordan directly because of restrictions contained in the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR, and because the U.S. is committed to maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over its neighbors. His proposal, he said, would bypass these stumbling blocks: “So then, the Jordanians don’t own them, there is no QME problem, and they are able to use that now.”
Carter responded, “That is one of the, actually, many forms of assistance to the Jordanians and other coalition partners that we are looking at, and no decision has been made about that…the logic that you describe and the possibility that you describe is a real one.”
Dempsey seconded that: “Your letter is being addressed at the Department of State right now.”
The Jordanian embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
If Hunter’s assertions are true, Jordan’s interest in Chinese drones would be the latest example of an U.S. ally looking at non-American weapons to get around a slow and laborious arms-export process. American companies have long pushed for looser restrictions to allow them to better compete with foreign firms. In February, the Obama administration said it would expand drone sales to carefully selected allies, but experts said it’s too early to tell whether this would accelerate the export process.
Meanwhile, China has been actively marketing its drones on the international market. Earlier this year, state-owned defense firms pitched their unmanned aircraft at the International Defence Exposition and Conference in Abu Dhabi.
The Wing Loong, also know as the Pterodactyl, bears a strong resemblance to the American-made Predator; it is said to possess similar range, weapons load, and other characteristics. Like the Predator, the Wing Loong has a reconnaissance pod and can carry missiles. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have reportedly purchased the system.