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.
What changes under the Trump administration may come down to how the U.S. decides to interpret what is known as the “presumption of denial” for unmanned system sales.
The Missile Technology Control Regime restricts exports of missiles and delivery vehicles capable of carrying 500-kilogram payloads for more than 300 kilometers, which fall under the “category-1” heading. Under the MTCR, there is a “presumption of denial” for category-1 systems. In other words, they need to have a very compelling case to sell them.
That restriction has historically applied to drones, but industry figures and analysts such as Horowitz have pushed for the MTCR to be reformed, saying restrictions designed for cruise missiles should not apply to unmanned systems.
“Drones aren’t missiles — and moving away from treating them as missiles for the purposes of defense exports is a rational approach,” Horowitz said. “While the Obama administration policy was a step in the right direction towards more drone exports to responsible countries, individual cases still got hung up for too long in the bureaucracy, without a clear way to move forward.”
While the U.S. could push for changes to the MTCR, doing so requires consensus among the 33 other states in the agreement, making it much easier to simply tweak the U.S. export policy.
There are a few options for how the Trump administration could open up drone sales, though two stick out as the easiest. With one, it could essentially tweak the language of the 2015 export rules, but interpreting them in a different way — say, by emphasizing political-military benefits over nonproliferation goals for category-1 systems.
Or the administration could go further and explicitly state in new policy that the U.S. is prepared to overcome the presumption of denial for allied countries that could pass the normal weapon sale criteria. It is possible the U.S. could even state that any MTCR member nation could expect to overcome the presumption of denial, perhaps as a way to draw more countries into that agreement.
What is to come remains unclear, but civil society experts such as Rachel Stohl, an analyst with the Stimson Center, will be keeping a close eye.
“The concept of providing partners and allies with technology and safeguarding the technological edge of U.S. industry — which to be honest I’m not sure exists in this space — and nonproliferation are all worthy causes,” Stohl said. “The devil is in the details and the specific policy changes or development that will occur as a part of this review.”
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.