WASHINGTON – In the waning days of the Obama administration, the U.S. State Department teamed with over 40 nations to issue a joint declaration on the use and export of armed drones. But with the election of Donald Trump, movement on the agreement has slowed to a crawl, with signatories onto a joint declaration agreeing to postpone a key meeting until the summer in order to give the Americans time to sort out how – or if – the new administration wants to proceed.
Speaking on background last month, a pair of senior State Department officials told Defense News they remain optimistic that the Trump administration will ultimately support the agreement, but acknowledged that allies are concerned about moving forward without a firm commitment from the new administration.
The one-page "Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)" lists five general principals, in line with those established in 2015 by the United States, for the import and export of armed drones.
When it was released on Oct. 5, it was met with criticisms from both human-rights groups, who argued the language is too loose and does not do enough to curb the use of armed systems, as well as foreign producers such as Israel, who worried the language is designed to hurt their indigenous drone industry.
At the time, officials expected the declaration to move forward fairly quickly, with the signatories planning to meet in early 2017 to discuss next steps. But that is on hold while State seeks an understanding of how the Trump White House wants to handle the matter.
One major challenge for officials stems from the lack of political appointees. As of March 20, the only confirmed political appointees at the department are Secretary Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley as the U.N. Ambassador, and there are only six other nominees announced – leaving 113 spots open without a nomination.
Those include relevant spots such as the under secretary for arms control and international security affairs, the under secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, and their assistant secretaries.
"It may be a while before we have all the political leadership in place to be able to help give us a steer on what we’re doing," the first official said, before noting that staff have had two meetings at the White House where the joint declaration was brought up.
While declining to describe the details of those discussions, the official said the process has "begun" in a "positive" manner, and stressed that those who signed the joint declaration remain enthusiastic about it going forward.
The State officials acknowledged that major producers of unmanned systems, including Israel and China, have proven reluctant to sign on. And while State remains hopeful such producers may join up in the future, the two officials were realistic that as the only major producer to sign on, the other signees will take a lead from Washington – at a time when Washington doesn’t know if it will continue forward.
"U.S. leadership on this effort as a practical matter is going to be difficult. We’re still filling key positions, we still don’t have ambassadors abroad. So what we’re looking forward to seeing is a truly international effort to make this happen," the second official said.
Right now, that international effort has been fairly quiet. The planned early 2017 meeting has been pushed back to June in order to give the U.S. officials time to set policy, but in the meantime lines of communication remain open with key allies. The officials also said that they are keeping channels open for other UAV producers, in hopes of convincing them to join the joint declaration.
One of the countries signed on to the document has agreed to host the June event, although the State officials declined to identify it. (They confirmed it would not be held at The Hague.)
Michael Horowitz, a former Pentagon official now with the University of Pennsylvania who has studied drone issues, is skeptical that any movement will happen without clear direction from the new administration.
"Until the relevant political appointments in the State Department occur, a significant change in UAS export policy is less likely simply for bureaucratic reasons. In the absence of a new political directive, or senior-level intervention on particular cases, the status quo is more likely to persist," Horowitz said.
Adds Rachel Stohl, an arms control expert with the Stimson Center, "The joint declaration was an admirable step to address the concerns surrounding the continued proliferation in and use of armed drones, but there is tremendous uncertainty about what the follow-on process will look like and accomplish.
"Unfortunately, as with so many other policy issues, it is unclear where the Trump administration stands on this process," Stohl said. "Absent clear direction from the White House, no one at the State Department is in place to take ownership of the portfolio and guide the process."
Since the roll-out, State has emphasized that this is not an agreement aimed at giving U.S. industry a leg over global competition. While that argument has largely fallen on deaf ears in Israel and other nations, American industry is certainly watching the results of the joint declaration closely – while gearing up for a broader push about drone regulations.
Remy Nathan, vice president of international affairs with the Aerospace Industries Association, encouraged the new administration to take a thorough look at the joint declaration and make sure it’s in line with American interests.
"The way you identify American interests in this technology and the use of this tech and the export of this tech – It’s all about the words," he said. "It’s all about what words are first and then what words are second, what’s the phrasing, because we policy wonks start diving into the nuance to figure out the signals."
In terms of the declaration being good for U.S. industry, Nathan said that the language should make sure "there be a positive consequence when countries sign on."
Indeed, that appears to be happening. Guidance issued from the State Department notes that strike-enabled unmanned systems require exports to be cleared by the government in the usual manner – but that "it's reasonable for you to assume that our closest allies, who contribute most to US and multilateral security efforts, and have the strongest records on factors like human rights and nonproliferation, are more likely to be approved for an export."
Looking more broadly, Nathan reiterated a longstanding push from American industry groups to reform how the government classified unmanned systems, in particular over the way the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) covers such systems.
The MTCR restricts exports of missiles and delivery vehicles capable of carrying 500-kilogram payloads for more than 300 kilometers, which has historically applied to drones; industry figures have pushed for the MTCR to be reformed so that systems such as the Global Hawk are not impacted.
"There is a broad pattern of activity taking place out there that we’ve been talking about that other countries are doing their best to grow their own market share," Nathan said. "And if you put some of these trend lines together, it’s a worrisome prospect about US standing when it comes to UAS exports, unless and until the new administration or Congress starts thinking about what do we want to achieve in maximizing U.S. interests when it comes to this technology, while still being respectful of our nonproliferation concerns."
Adds Horowitz, "In theory, one could imagine the Trump administration loosening regulations on UAS exports in an effort to build partner capacity and promote U.S. exports abroad. But authority for arms exports ultimately lies with Congress, and it is too soon to say precisely how things will develop."
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.