WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has officially launched a review of an Obama-era drone export policy, with expectations in industry that the administration will make it easier to export U.S.-manufactured systems.
For months, rumors have floated among both the defense industry and arms control communities that the Trump administration plans to change the 2015 export law that controls what unmanned aerial vehicles can be sold to allies.
There was even speculation that changes could be announced during a June visit from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But until recently, administration sources denied such a move was formally underway.
Now, an administration official confirmed to Defense News that there is an ongoing review of the 2015 UAV export policy as part of a broader look at the “spectrum at ways we can modernize and seek smarter new approaches to U.S. defense trade policy.”
However, the official emphasized that no decision about the future of the UAV policy has been decided, and that the review is in the early stages.
“While these discussions remain ongoing, I can tell you that a key goal is to ensure we strike the right balance among delivering top-shelf U.S. defense articles to our allies and partners, safeguarding the technological edge of U.S. industry, and preserving America’s global leadership in promoting international security and nonproliferation,” the official said.
For American UAV manufacturers, any changes can’t come fast enough. Producers in the U.S. have argued for years that they are handicapped on the global marketplace by restrictions that other drone exporters, most notably China and Israel, are not.
Those complaints have taken on an additional edge in the last year, as Chinese-made systems, including replicas of American unmanned designs, have begun appearing on the runways of strategic allies such as the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt.
Reviewing the export policy is a “sensible approach,” according to Michael Horowitz, a former Pentagon official and unmanned expert now with the University of Pennsylvania.
“Making it easier for the U.S. to export advanced drones to responsible allies and partners can help the U.S. build the capacity of those countries and avoid the risk that China steps in in America’s absence,” he said.
The timetable for changing the drone export policy is unclear. One industry source said initial indications were for a September-October time frame, but the source now believes that is unrealistic in part because of the ever-changing nature of President Donald Trump’s White House.
“My concern is that the administration has 100 things going on at once and they are constantly distracted, so I don’t know how much attention this is getting, if the people who care are able to keep pushing it despite the chaos,” the source said.
For a Trump administration that has emphasized creating American jobs, changing the export rules could net clear benefits and represent a fairly easy win domestically.
The industry source estimated changing the export rules could result in “thousands” of jobs and “billions” of dollars worth of sales — which could potentially include the creation ofcommercial and civil versions of military drones.
“Right now, I don’t think any U.S. company is incentivized to look seriously at commercial and civil applications if we can’t export them,” the source said.