WASHINGTON — New US rules loosening restrictions on exports of armed drones should not only help US companies, but will also aid Washington in shaping "global norms of behavior" when it comes to strike UAVs, an expert said.
On Feb. 17, the US State Department released new rules for how and when it may sell a variety of armed drones to its allies.
The move comes as the Obama administration places a high priority on training and equipping its allies — in particular its NATO partners — to assume more of a role in regional stability, humanitarian and counterterrorism operations.
The full scope of the changes to US policy remain somewhat murky, since the full results of an internal review remain classified. But the State Department released a statement Feb. 17 outlining some of the major thrusts of the new policy.
The new export policy will place strict conditions on the sale or transfer of platforms that are capable of being armed, and pledges to undertake new sales only when they will enhance "the operational capabilities and capacity of trusted partner nations, increasing US interoperability with these partners for coalition operations, ensuring responsible use of these systems, and easing the stress on US force structure for these capabilities," the State Department said in a statement.
The changes to the policy come out of a broader review that include plans to work with allies to help shape international standards for the sale, transfer and use of drones, officials at the State Department said.
The chorus of voices from outside the government calling for changes to the unmanned system export rules has grown in recent years, particularly from industry. Proponents of the change argue that it makes no sense to block the sale of an ISR-focused Predator system to a country to whom the US has already agreed to sell high-end weapons such as F-16s.
Michael Horowitz, a former Pentagon official who is now an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, called changes in drone export rules "long overdue."
He said the old rules were "overly restrictive" on US companies, forcing them to fall behind the growing number of foreign drone developers, while also hurting the ability of the US government to help create behavioral norms of unmanned system usage.
"Technological developments and foreign competitors, especially China and Israel, are already ensuring the rapid proliferation of militarily-relevant drones around the world," Horowitz said. "Better for the United States to leverage its leadership and try to shape global norms of behavior in this critical area than stand by and do nothing."
Heidi Grant, Air Force undersecretary for International Affairs, told Defense News in a Feb. 12 interview that selling unmanned systems to the UK, France and Italy has reaped great rewards for the US.
In particular, those countries are now able to shoulder ISR missions that US forces would otherwise have to do, freeing up American assets for other operations.
"When you look at the capability France has, and the operations they are doing in Mali, that is an example of operational avoidance," she said. "The US doesn't need to be there. France has got it and it is a huge success there, so we are fortunate that our policy has allowed us to export to France."
But even if the US opens up sales, a strong argument can be made for global competitors. After all, Chinese products tend to be cheaper than their American counterparts.
Grant counters that argument by pointing to America's operational knowledge and supply chain, which she said is a big plus for buyers of all US military goods, including future unmanned system sales.
"What I hear from countries around the world is they are frustrated with equipment they've bought from other countries — they buy the equipment and then they don't get the sustainment and the training," she said. "While sometimes our equipment is more expensive, they know we're going to be there, they know they are going to get the best training in the world."
As an example, she added, an international group of unmanned system operators had a recent meeting to share lessons learned and to discuss how best to proceed with their operations. That kind of knowledge base and training is not available with cheaper exports.
"When I ask people 'why do you partner with us when you could go to Russia, you could go to China, you could go many places,' that is what I hear," she added. "They are buying a partnership."
The policy will also include safeguards against improper use through end-use monitoring to ensure that "human rights, regional power balance, and other" standards remain in place, an official said.
This month, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency and the State Department announced a potential $340 million sale of four MQ-9 Reapers to the Netherlands. While there were no weapons included in the proposed agreement, Reaper sales were approved for sale to the UK, Italy and France. Only the drones for the UK were armed.
The new policy "is an acknowledgement of the problems the administration has had in trying to manage UAS [unmanned aerial system] exports" said Remy Nathan, vice president of international affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association.
The sales will also make sure there is "appropriate participation for US industry in the emerging commercial UAS market, which will contribute to the health of the US industrial base, and thus to US national security, which includes economic security," the department said.
"There's also an acknowledgment that there is a national security cost in not allowing the transfers to go through" to allies, Nathan said, since any mismatch in aerial surveillance or strike capability between Washington and its allies means that the US fleet becomes the global go-to force for sensitive missions, as opposed to a broader burden-sharing.
From a US defense industry perspective, the new rules would also appear to make it somewhat easier to make the case for such drone sales.
Until now, every time a potential sale would be pitched to the US government, industry would "have to build an argument from scratch" about why such a sale would fit within existing laws and guidelines, Nathan added.
Now, "we're putting this all down on paper up front and saying everything has to go through this process the same way, and that's a marked improvement."
A Lockheed Martin spokesperson emailed that the company is "evaluating the details of the new policy," but the company believes that it may be "a great first step toward ensuring that US companies are able to provide our allies with the unmanned systems that will help them meet their national security requirements. The new policy acknowledges the importance of the international commercial market to the US industrial base and US national security and economic interests."
The State Department said the buyer in any future sale will have to agree to a list of conditions before the sale goes through, including end-use monitoring by US agencies, a guarantee that they are to be used "in operations involving the use of force only when there is a lawful basis for use of force under international law, such as national self-defense" and an assurance that they are not to be used "to conduct unlawful surveillance or use unlawful force against their domestic populations."