Restrictions on unmanned exports expected to be eased

WASHINGTON ― The Trump administration this week is expected to announce new guidance on the export of defense equipment, as well as new rules loosening restrictions on drone exports, all as part of a broader push by President Donald Trump to encourage growth in the defense industrial base.

The rules could be made public as early as Wednesday, but sources familiar with the issue cautioned that the schedule has already shifted for announcing these changes several times in the past few months.

The Obama administration started a comprehensive review of how defense technologies are classified, which resulted in a large number of common technologies that had previously been protected under national security restrictions being moved to commercial classifications. The Trump administration has continued that work, with an eye toward supporting the American industrial base.

The item most likely to attract attention, however, is a change in the rules governing the export of unmanned systems, commonly known as drones. The change would alter a 2015 guidance from the Obama administration governing unmanned system exports, with an eye on making it easier to sell the systems to partners abroad. Such a change has been on the Trump administration’s docket going back to August 2017.

A source familiar with the discussions told Defense News that the upcoming announcement will make it easier to sell drones through the Direct Commercial Sales process, under which a company and another nation can directly negotiate, rather than requiring a more formal Foreign Military Sales process, where the U.S. government acts as something of a go-between. (Systems sold under Direct Commercial Sales must still go through regulation checks in the U.S. State Department.)

The new policy effectively reinterprets the “strong presumption of denial” clause in the Missile Technology Control Regime, an international arms control agreement among 35 nations that governs the export of missiles and drones, a second source explained.

The current clause makes it difficult to approve the sale of category-1 drones capable of carrying 500-kilogram payloads for more than 300 kilometers.

Instead, the Trump administration’s policy sets a “presumption of approval” for drone sales to a specific set of allies and partners in Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region, the second source added.

While the change will be internally focused, the announcement will leave open the door for a U.S. push toward change to the MTCR itself, the first source said. Last October, American officials floated a whitepaper proposing new language to the treaty: that any air vehicle that flies under 650 kilometers per hour would drop to “category-2” and thus be subject to approval on a case-by-case basis.

While the new changes have been heavily anticipated by industry, arms control organizations have raised concerns that the Trump administration may downplay human rights concerns in favor of economic benefit.

Speaking in early April at an event hosted by the Forum on the Arms Trade, Rachel Stohl of the Stimson Center said she had heard human rights were a lesser factor in the new policy than previous ones, and warned that could make it harder for the U.S. to push other countries on rights issues.

“I’ll be looking to see how the U.S. is placing itself as a standard bearer,” she said. ”In many international meetings, the U.S. says, ‘we have the gold standard,’ [but] if in your policy guidance document those are absent, I think that is a noteworthy development.“

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.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

More In Unmanned