Targeting U.S. Technologies
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Case Study


The worldwide use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA) has risen steadily over the past 25 years, as countries place increasing emphasis on the acquisition of UAV capabilities to acquire parity or maintain strategic or tactical advantage.

As a world leader in UAV research and development (R&D), the United States industrial sector is at risk of intensive foreign-originated efforts to acquire UAV-related technologies or information resident at cleared defense contractor (CDC) facilities. CDCs should be aware of the intensity of this burgeoning threat and be prepared to institute appropriate measures to counter its effect. This special interest report is intended to contribute to that effort.

Currently, approximately 50 countries are involved with more than 100 different UAV acquisition and/or development programs. An overview of UAV R&D and production efforts reveals an unprecedented level of worldwide activity (See Figure 5):

  • Near East entities continue to be the world leader in UAV exports and have made progress in the development of lethal UAVs.

  • South and Central Asia collectors are leading importers of UAV technology and have started their own fledging development programs.

  • East Asia and the Pacific entities desire to be major exporters of UAV platforms. Also, their indigenous programs are robust, but often lack operational success further creating pressure to obtain foreign technology.

  • European and Eurasian entities aggressively pursue joint ventures and technology transfers to aid indigenous R&D efforts.

  • African collectors have successfully marketed their systems to third-party buyers.

The UAV market continues to expand as a greater number of developers offer updated systems and the global demand increases. This competitive dynamic drives intense requirements for the information related to UAV state-of-the-art developments. These advanced UAV technologies may range from hand-launched, micro-UAVs to small business or jet-sized high-altitude long-range endurance platforms.

(U) What is a UAV System?

A UAV system usually consists of one or more aerial vehicles (AVs); a ground control station (GCS); a ground tracking unit; and AV launch, recovery, and support equipment. The AV flies within the atmosphere under its own power, performs a mission, and has the ability to return. A simple propeller-driven, fixed-wing AV, minus data links and payload, can cost as little as $5,000. Adding camera payloads and data links to transmit the camera pictures may increase the price anywhere from $350,000 to $1,000,000. Adding a GCS data processor, a ground tracking unit, ground maintenance support equipment, and extra payload packages may increase the system cost to as much as $25 million.1

In the more advanced systems, two-way data links provide payload management and vehicle command control as long as it stays within radio line-of-sight (LOS) of the ground tracking unit. The data links also transmit payload-derived reconnaissance data to the GCS. UAV navigation is derived from an internal navigation system coupled to a global positioning system receiver. Many United States UAVs are equipped with a return-to-home function that automatically routes the AV back to its home station or a predetermined location if the AV loses LOS with the ground tracking unit. The payloads or sensor packages available for use on UAVs include:

- Day-only television
- Thermal imagers
-Low-light television
Synthetic-aperture radar
Infrared line scan
Moving-target-indicating radar

Trend Analysis

UAVs continue to be the most dynamic and competitive growth sector of the world aerospace industry. Commercial market studies estimate that over the next 10 years, UAV development and acquisition spending will almost double from worldwide expenditures of $4.4 billion annually to $8.7 billion. The United States accounts for approximately 70 percent of the worldwide UAV research and development test and evaluation (RDT&E) spending but only 60 percent of the procurement spending. Europe and Eurasia represents the second largest source of RDT&E and acquisition spending, followed closely by the East Asia and Pacific region. Analyst Comment: It is likely the East Asia and Pacific region will overtake European and Eurasian UAV expenditures in the next decade. (Confidence Level: Moderate)

2.1. UAV Regions of Origin

Defense industry reporting indicates that UAV RDT&E programs vary by region, technological competencies, and resources. Whether the collection efforts are motivated to enhance country-specific production capabilities, promote a country's competitiveness for the growing UAV world market, augment a specific country's military competencies, or develop potential countermeasures, UAV technology remains an intense focus of foreign collection efforts. Defense industry reporting reveals entities from the following regions attempted to acquire export-controlled, UAV-related technology in FY08 (See Figure 5):

  • South and Central Asian entities represented the most prolific collectors, requesting complete UAV systems, composite materials, auto pilot systems, and sensor payload technology.

  • Near East collectors attempted joint ventures and offered maintenance and training services in exchange for United States' classified systems. Suspicious technology requests focused on control software and radio frequency microwave components.

  • East Asian and Pacific entities utilized all available means of collection to target UAV technology including military joint agreements, illicit collection attempts, joint venture proposals, and approved foreign military sales. These regional entities requested production details as well as platform and individual components like auto tracking antennas.

  • European and Eurasian collectors used a variety of state and non-state actors to acquire UAV command and control programs and airframe carbon composite manufacturing details.

Defense industry reporting involving UAV technologies revealed a diverse effort not unique to any single world region. Most collection efforts emanated from regions with more advanced industrial capabilities or active UAV development programs. Typically, these collection efforts focused on specific UAV technologies essential to a particular region's RDT&E program. Analyst Comment: Although regional entities occasionally sought complete systems, it is likely the desire for fully functional UAV capabilities most commonly originated from regions attempting to address existing internal or border conflicts that taxed their limited command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. (Confidence Level: High)

Foreign UAV Collection

2.2. Targeted Technology

DSS suspicious contact reports showed that UAV technology collection attempts covered all aspects of UAV systems. The collectors ranged from high-tech companies in industrially-advanced countries to emerging third-world countries. Targeted technologies spanned the entire UAV spectrum and included:

  • Software control programs

  • Data link control systems

  • Electro-optic sensors

  • Infrared sensors

  • Synthetic aperture radars

  • Signals intelligence

  • Electronic warfare systems

  • Chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear sensors

  • Launch and recovery systems

  • C4ISR systems

  • Propulsion designs

  • Inertial navigation systems

  • Advanced composite materials designs


In the last few years, there has been an evolution in battle space doctrine to use superior intelligence to defeat the enemy instead of relying exclusively on the application of overwhelming force. This new doctrine elevates the importance of UAV capabilities and drives the imperative to acquire UAV technologies. The proliferation of UAV RDT&E programs and associated fielding of systems has resulted in an ever-increasing demand for UAV technology and expertise. To maintain economic competitiveness, UAV companies, as well as suspicious collectors, can be expected to use every available means to acquire break-through technologies. Exploitation of joint ventures and/or teaming collaborations to acquire information will become increasingly common, as will attempts to solicit information from defense industry directly involved with UAV or associated dual-use technologies. As a major developer of UAV technologies, it is highly likely that defense industry's UAV technologies will remain premier targets of both an overt and covert foreign collection focus. (Confidence Level: High)

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