As part of his “Buy American” program to create jobs and reduce the U.S. trade deficit, President Donald Trump is about to make some types of lethal U.S.-made drones easier to be purchased by U.S. allies and partners.
Facing increased competition overseas, particularly with Chinese and Israeli manufacturers, U.S. drone manufacturers have been pushing the Trump administration to make changes to the arms export regulations.
A U.S. official expressed sentiments of reconditioning the arms export policy:
“We’re getting outplayed all over the world. Why can our competitors sell to our own allies the equipment they are clamoring to buy from us? This policy is meant to turn that around.”
The announcement of the new policy has been delayed for months because of discussions on how far drone exports should be released. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had pressed National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster to expedite the policy so that the U.S. does not lose out on sales to other countries. The key aspect of the policy will loosen restrictions on sales of smaller hunter-killer drones, which carry fewer missiles and travel shorter distances than larger models such as the Predator drone. The policy will also loosen restrictions for surveillance drones of all sizes.
These new rules are a major step toward lifting a longstanding U.S. taboo that prohibits the U.S. selling armed drones to other countries except for a few of Washington’s most trusted allies. In recent years, the only sales of armed U.S-made drones have been to Italy and the U.K., and as restrictions are set to be loosened, potential expected buyers include NATO allies, such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf partners, and other treaty allies like Japan and South Korea. Other potential buyers include India, Singapore, Australia, and many of the 35 signatories to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which is an international agreement that governs exports of missiles and any other related weaponry.
However, human rights and arms control advocates have warned that the new export guidelines can reinforce more violence and instability in regions such as the Middle East and South Asia. Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow with the Arms Control Association, said that an increase of drone sales “could put these weapons in the hands of governments that act irresponsibly with their neighbors and against their own population.”
The rules and restrictions on drone exports were first revised and loosened during the Obama administration, which aimed to increase its military drone exports. But the policy in 2015 resulted in complaints from U.S. manufacturers saying that the guidelines were still restrictive. The Teal Group, a market research firm, estimates that the global U.S. drone sales will exponentially rise from $2.6 billion in 2016 to $9.4 billion by 2025 when the new policy on arms exports go into effect.