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Experts: US Must Loosen Restrictions on UAV Exports

May. 8, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By AARON MEHTA   |   Comments
Analysts say US limits on exports of UAVs, such as the Reaper, will cost the US sales and control of the market.
Analysts say US limits on exports of UAVs, such as the Reaper, will cost the US sales and control of the market. (US Air Force)
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WASHINGTON — If the US does not change limitations on the exportability of unmanned systems, it could drive partner nations to either build platforms domestically or purchase designs from countries like China, a panel of experts said today.

Without a change in export policy, partners “will be incentivized to build them themselves, or they will simply buy them from others,” Michael Horowitz, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told the audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Building partner capacity to substitute or supplement for American capabilities is an important national security priority, and there is a strong demand signal” for UAVs, Horowitz said. “This is a technology many are interested in.”

“When it comes to the present generation of UAVs, we’re interested in promoting responsible usage of this technology, [and] we have a much better chance of encouraging that with responsible exports than by throwing our hands up and saying ‘we don’t want to play this game’ and let countries buy systems from China or develop them themselves, and not get access to the training and other things that would allow the US to shape the way the rest of the world uses them.”

While small UAVs will proliferate on their own, “if you then focus on the longer range systems and those that are armed, it really reduces the set of countries and places that can develop those and be likely to acquire those,” noted Lynn Davis, representing the RAND corporation. “Many of our partners but also our adversaries, when looking at these systems, might also find other systems that are more attractive militarily or in terms of costs.”

The good news, Horowitz said, is that there is some flexibility in how the US handles it — if the government is willing to work with allies on the issue.

“I think it’s possible for the United States to design a responsible export policy that involves allowing more arms systems out the door to our closest allies and partners,” he said.

Davis noted that the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is a sizeable roadblock in exporting unmanned systems like the MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper.

The MTCR “is standing in the way of everything we wanted to do to develop these system and sell them to partners,” Davis said. However, as with Horowitz, she noted there is “enough flexibility in the MTCR for us to be able to share and sell these systems to our partners” if the US chose to pursue that.

Before the discussion on proliferation of unmanned systems, a panel of military representatives noted that cooperation and collaboration among the branches of the US military is going to be increasingly important for UAVs.

The good news, according to the panelists, is that the services are aware more cooperation is needed.

“The cooperation among the services right now in the field of [UAVs] is as good as it’s ever been, in my estimation,” said Navy Capt. Chris Corgnati.

He identified the origin of increased cooperation as a meeting, held roughly a year ago, between top generals from the services, and said that cooperation has filtered down through the ranks.

One area in which he wants to see more cooperation is in sustainment and maintenance operations, such as sharing overseas bases and depot work.

“There’s no reason two of us should have two different depots working on the same part,” Corgnati said.

Lt. Col. Michael Hixson, presenting the Marines, and Air Force Col. Kenneth Callahan both noted that declining budgets means the services will have to work smarter when it comes to unmanned systems.

Email: amehta@defensenews.com.

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