WASHINGTON and TEL AVIV – As US State Department officials try to convince foreign nations to sign on to a new set of guidelines for the export and use of armed unmanned systems, experts are split on just what the impact such new rules might have on the growing market for strike-capable drones.
Defense News first broke the news last week that the US is seeking to bring foreign nations under similar restrictions for the sale and use of armed drones as those put in place by the Obama administration last year. US officials traveled to Geneva last week to meet with export control representatives from some 100 governments on the sidelines of the second Arms Trade Treaty review conference.
Administration officials this week told Defense News that the one-page document laying out the core principals of the export regime, which has been distributed to partner nations around the globe, is actually just the first part in an admittedly ambitious two-step process.
The first step is issuing a Joint Declaration for military "strike-enabling" unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) later this fall, followed by the establishment of an international working group tasked with devising a voluntary Code of Conduct for exporting and importing nations.
"Step one addresses the misperceptions and the complicated, sensitive and controversial aspects of strike-enabled UAVs. The Joint Declaration will acknowledge that this is a hard issue, but that all those on board, as governments, are prepared to have that discussion," an administration official told Defense News.
In an interview this week, a State Department official characterized the meetings as "the diplomatic version of speed dating," and claimed responses thus far have been "fairly favorable."
"We’re aiming high to get as many countries as possible. We’re explaining to them that [joining in] the Joint Declaration will get them a seat at the table for the next phase, with an international working group to actually talk about standards," he said.
He added, "Our intent is to fulfill the Joint Declaration this fall. We recognize the challenges in this effort and our timeline is ambitious… This declaration really is a stepping stone to a conversation that is difficult, but one that needs to be had."
Another official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, insisted that the White House-led effort "is not looking to create a new export control regime," but rather "a confidence building and transparency body, whether I’m an exporter or importer."
She noted that most combat-capable UAVs are voluntarily regulated by the Wassenaar dual use agreement or the Missile Technology Control Regime. That said, not all UAV producers are government-ratified signatories to those regimes.
"At the end of the day, if any type of UAV can be armed and deploy a strike, we think it should be part of the conversation."
A Growing Market
It is easy to understand why the State Department would move to try and set norms on armed drones. Putting aside the fact it would create a nice legacy item for the Obama administration as it leaves office, getting countries to sign on to the declaration could have direct, long-term impact on a growing defense market sector.
Excluding the US, industry analyst firm Avascent has identified 15 foreign nations that have either announced intentions to procure armed drones or have already put forth money to do so. Those 15 countries will spend an estimated $13.4 billion from FY15 to FY21 – a number that Avascent researchers say could easily rise if other countries decide to procure weaponized systems as well, or if those 15 nations increase their planned buy.
In total, Avascent predicts the armed drone market outside the US will grow from $1.08 billion in FY15 to $1.98 billion in FY21.
Mike Blades, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan who studies unmanned systems, sees a two-pronged effort in the State declaration.
One layer, he said, is to "provide some solace to anti-drone advocates that there will be some sort of ‘Geneva Convention’ type of rules for international use of armed drones, which will include transparency." The second layer, Blades believes, is industrial, with the goal to keep the US competitive with European and Israeli firms that are drawing even technologically with the US.
At the end of the day, Blades predicts something like a drone-specific Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) agreement, where a number of smaller players sign on but the big producers of armed drones outside the US decline – which largely neuters the impact American officials could achieve.
Joel Johnson, an analyst with the Teal Group, also compared it to the MTCR or other arms agreements, but highlighted the fact that the Joint Declaration as currently written has no enforcement mechanisms built in.
"I would anticipate somewhat the same results you get with the Arms Trade Treaty – China, India and Russia haven’t signed the arms trade treaty and they probably wouldn’t sign up for this one either," Johnson said.
And while the US, Israel, Japan, South Korea and Turkey – all of whom plan to develop armed drones in the future – have all signed on, none of them have ratified that agreement, essentially leaving it toothless.
"I think having Russia or China agree to such rules is a pipe dream," Blades agreed. "Israel might balk too, because they don't even like to admit they've used armed drones. But historically, they've ultimately supported international military trade agreements favored by the US."
Israel provides a particularly interesting case, the US officials noted, as an example of a country that is a prominent exporter and user of such capabilities. It has adopted Wassenaar and is adhering to, though not formally a part of MTCR. Therefore, they say the Administration is focusing efforts on bringing Israel early into the two-phase process.
They noted that the issue was planned as an agenda item for this week’s visit to Israel by Thomas Shannon, US undersecretary of state for political affairs.
"With the Israelis, they’re actively engaging with us… Our approach is for key people [countries] to have a seat at the founder’s table. That’s the goal… The fact of Israel being a prominent exporter, they naturally will have a more critical voice in the process," the official said.
International outreach is going to all countries with which the US has diplomatic relations, including China and Russia, but not Iran. "We’ve engaged directly with the Russians and via our embassy, as well as with other major producers, including Turkey and China," one said.
Stephen Bryen, a founding director of the Pentagon’s Defense Technology Security Agency, was dubious that anything would come of the initiative. "I think the State Department is pushing a Don Quixote solution that is bound to fail," he said.
"If, in fact, the US managed to strong-arm its allies into such a regime and imposing restrictions, it would only mean giving the Russians and Chinese, and probably the North Koreans, a free hand to sell armed drones to anyone they like," Bryen added.
Doug Barrie, of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, called the Declaration "another example of legislation trying to catch up with technology," and agreed that the countries most likely to sign on aren’t the ones the US needs the most.
"Arguably, the US has in many ways set the precedent for armed UAV use – and some nations may consider the US proposal as a kind of ‘do as I say, not as I do,’" Barrie said.
Because of the general nature of the letter, Johnson predicts little to no real industrial impact from the Declaration.
"The Israelis are the only country that will be challenged by this," he said. "On the one hand they want to be thought of as good citizens, but they need to export more than we do because it’s such a small domestic market. You probably see Heron systems in a few markets we wouldn’t sell to."
"It’s basically a statement of good intentions. There’s nothing wrong with good intentions. People should have them," Johnson added, but ultimately "It’s just hard to get excited about it one way or another."
But Remy Nathan, vice president of international affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association, sees potential in the potential for wide-ranging norms covering armed unmanned systems.
"There’s value in ensuring the responsible use of unmanned systems, just like most any aspect of our industry," Nathan said. "If there are cases where negative things happen, then there is always a backlash that ultimately does impact sales of any product we make. Anything that addresses those kinds of concerns and considerations is potentially valuable."
He also points out that common principals and standards for the development of such systems could help US manufacturers have an even playing field when compared to potential competitors.
"Having common rule sets are something that we’re all in favor of," Nathan said.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.