WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has lined up more than 40 countries who have agreed to a joint declaration on the import and export of armed unmanned systems, in what the US State Department is billing as the first step toward creating global norms for the weapon systems.
The agreement will be formally announced Wednesday afternoon. Defense News first broke news of the agreement, then in draft form, in August.
In addition to the US, signatories include Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Czech Republic, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malawi, Montenegro, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Paraguay, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, , Romania, Serbia, Seychelles, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and Uruguay.
Titled "Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)," the one-page statement lists five general principals, in line with those established last year by the US, for the import and export of armed drones.
Last month, analysts questioned whether countries would actually sign onto the agreement, in part because the language could be seen as restricting to international drone producers. But Brian Nilsson, deputy assistant secretary for defense trade controls with State, told Defense News this week that the US agency is cognizant about not impacting local industrial concerns.
"We’re not attempting to discourage the development of indigenous industry, but it is a topic that needs to have a specific discussion, because there is a lot of misconceptions and controversy around UAVs," Nilsson said, adding that he hopes to bring industry into future discussions.
State is following the blueprint used for the International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, commonly called the Hague Code of Conduct (HCOC), Nilsson explained. In that treaty, a small number of countries initially agreed on principals, then hammered out the details over a series of meetings before coming to final conclusions. That small group has now expanded widely as more countries came on board.
And those future discussions are, in many ways, the core of this declaration. Those countries who sign onto the agreement now will have "a seat at the table" come early 2017, when the signees will sit down for the first of several meetings which will hammer out further details, Nilsson said.
Michael Horowitz, a former Pentagon official who is now an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and has focused on drone export policies, sees some merit in that process.
"There is a difference between starting a process designed to promote the responsible export and use of UAVs around the world, which it appears the United States is doing, and a process designed to halt UAV proliferation," Horowitz said. "The former could succeed — though it may eventually require bringing all UAV exporters to the table. The latter is unlikely to succeed given the existing rate of proliferation and the enormous growth in the global robotics market."
"In the medium term, getting all UAV exporters on board would help if the goal is creating a more formal regime," Horowitz said. But, "the Joint Declaration also seems to provide a clear statement of US principles, which the US could use to influence the behavior of other states over time, particularly if they seek US UAV platforms."
Added Rachel Stohl, an analyst with the Stimson Center: "The United States already has high standards in its national export laws and its export policy. The standards in the joint declaration are lower than those standards. This could harm US industry, which would be subject to higher standards than their competitors."
Notably missing from the list of countries are Russia, China, India and Israel, seen as current or future exporters of armed drones. Israel, in particular, had previously expressed great skepticism about the deal.
For years, experts like Horowitz have warned that countries that may look to operate armed UAVs without regard for US norms would turn to those nations, a concern that still exists.
"One challenge for the United States and its allies and partners will be getting China, Russia and other actors on board with any joint declaration," he said. "China, in particular, may view reluctance on the part of the US to export UAVs as a market opportunity."
Nilsson said there was "extensive engagement with both China and Israel," and also had talks with Russia despite them being "not so much a producer or exporter."
As to concerns that without big exporters of armed UAVs on board, the group has less impact than it otherwise might, Nilsson called it "a fair criticism — just as it’s fair to point out most governments don’t belong to [the informal, non-treaty Missile Technology Control Regime]. But there is merit to maintaining those export control regimes, even if the memberships are small."
The final version of the declaration makes it clear that individual countries will retain their own standards for use of armed systems.
Ahead of listing five principals, the language notes that "none of [the principals] should be construed to undermine the legitimate interest of any State to indigenously produce, export, or acquire such systems for legitimate purposes."
In another bullet point, the language notes that "both the law of armed conflict and international human rights law, as applicable, to the use of armed or strike-enabled UAVs" should be followed.
Such language is worrisome to Stohl. In a Sept. 29 editorial for Defense News, she blasted the agreement, concluding that "sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something."
A week after her op-ed, Stohl remains concerned.
"Higher standards on drone exports and use are desirable and needed, but this joint declaration doesn’t go far enough to ensure that those standards actually set that bar high enough," she said Tuesday. "If standards are low, they provide a blank check to governments to act with impunity and claim they have acted responsibility."
Nilsson countered Stohl’s concerns, saying they don’t acknowledge that "this is the beginning [of] a decision, not the end — this is a way to get governments to agree to have this dialogue." He added that the initial wave of close allies contacted by State were initially skeptical, and urged the department to approach the process in this manner
"We had several governments who said ‘this is a lowering of standards.’ We said: ‘No, this is setting a bar for working towards having the standards,’ " Nilsson said. And since then, many of those governments "turned around and actually joined us."
Horowitz, meanwhile, warned that focusing solely on UAVs may prove to be limiting in the future.
"It is important to keep in mind that UAVs are just one instance of a broad expansion in the use of military robotics by the United States and many other nations — a trend that will continue regardless of the joint declaration," he said. "While UAVs get the media attention today, the next decade could feature countries deploying a range of emerging robotic capabilities across the spectrum."
In the meantime, interested parties will turn their eyes toward early 2017 and the first meeting of signatories. Exactly where and when that will take place is still being sorted out.
"This will be the first step," Nilsson said. "I think it will take some time for the scope of what we want the standards body to look like, what it does."
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.