WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of nearly two dozen lawmakers is calling for the Trump administration to allow sales of armed unmanned systems to Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
The lawmakers appealed to U.S. President Donald Trump to depart from the Obama administration's opposition to sending the MQ-9 Reaper to those Middle Eastern nations. The Trump administration has already signaled he is more flexible on arms exports by supporting a still-pending sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain without the human rights caveats imposed by the Obama administration.
The letter, spearheaded by Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, whose San Diego, California, district is home to MQ-9 manufacturer General Atomics, argues the sales could pump $1 billion into the U.S. economy and that "it would preserve thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs."
The letter is signed by 20 Republicans, many of them on the House Armed Services Committee, and two Democrats from California: Reps. Susan Davis and Scott Peters.
In an interview with Defense News on Tuesday, Hunter said the sales make economic sense and would aid allies against the Islamic State group, adding that a non-sale would mean ceding U.S. market share and influence to a foreign vendor like China.
"They are going to buy their defensive and offensive weapons somewhere, and if they buy from China, that aligns them in some aspect with China," Hunter said. "Why shouldn't they be more aligned with the U.S. and U.S. foreign policy in the fight against ISIS? They are getting it on, why not help them?"
Opening the pipeline for unmanned systems to Jordan has been a signature cause for Hunter at least since 2015 when he wrote multiple letters to the Obama administration, which pushed back, citing, in part, the Missile Technology Control Regime. The MTCR is an informal pact across 35 nations meant to curb the spread of unmanned nuclear weapons. It is credited with slowing or stopping several ballistic missile programs.
Hunter believes this administration will be more receptive because Trump has been vocal about allies being more self-reliant.
"You might say that its a Trump doctrine, having allies fight for themselves where they can," Hunter said. "He's talked about a NATO of the Middle East; and why not help them where we can? We are giving military aid in dollars. Why shouldn't they be buying American products?"
The letter comes as the White House proposes a budget that would kill U.S. subsidies for foreign allies, including Jordan, to buy American-made weapons outright and replace them with a loans program. Israel makes up more than half of the $5.7 billion program, with Egypt and Jordan next in line.
Asked if Jordan might require the aid to make the Reaper purchase, Hunter said that would be "worth doing" if necessary and dismissed the budget proposal's foreign military financing cuts.
"Congress is not going to pass a budget that cuts our allies off at the knees — and I count Jordan, Egypt and the UAE as allies against ISIS," he said.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.