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Why Is the U.S. So Stingy With Its Drones? It's Costing Us.

It's time to reexamine laws about selling UAVs to other countries

Getty Images/Ethan Miller

In December of 2011, a CIA-operated reconnaissance drone flying over western Afghanistan went down on Iranian soil. The U.S. said the RQ-170 Sentinel drone crashed due to a malfunction, but the Iranians claimed they had interrupted the communications network and grounded the aircraft within their borders. The U.S. asked for its drone back; Iran instead boasted about its technological coup. “Military experts are well aware how precious the technological information of this drone is,” said Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Aerospace Forces.

Since capturing the Sentinel, Iran has received offers from Russia and China to collaborate on developing their own drone technology. While U.S. military officials downplayed the significance of the incident, it highlights an increasingly important part of the drone debate: The U.S. cannot prevent other countries from acquiring drones, whether they do so by accident or by purchasing them from allies. The relative U.S. monopoly on drone technology is over.

Last week, the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank, released a report on U.S. drone policy that reiterated much of what has already been said: despite over a decade of drone warfare, extremist terrorist groups have grown in size and influence, and reliance on drones threatens to perpetuate an eternal conflict. But buried in the report was a vague warning about the sale of unmanned aerial vehicles, as the military calls them: “At the moment … it is unclear whether U.S. export control rules for UAVs appear well-suited to advancing US national security objectives.”

In other words: Why is America so stingy with its drones?

The report said the Obama administration should assess both the risks and opportunities of expanding the sale of drones to other countries, and went on to warn that “poorly conceived” export laws will have the effect of “suppressing useful innovation, limiting interoperability with allies, reducing US influence over foreign UAV development and weakening the defense industrial base.” Essentially, it was a late recognition that as drones become more accessible internationally, U.S. absence from the global market could be not only bad for business, but bad for our national security.

Export policy on UAVs is almost non-existent. UAV exports fall under the Arms Export Control Act, a domestic statute enacted in 1976, and the Missile Technology Control Regime, a non-binding international agreement established in 1987. Both were Cold War–era attempts at preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. “We need to update the current export regimes because frankly, they weren’t designed for this technology. The legislation has not caught up with where we are today with unmanned systems,” said Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. 

Neither domestic law nor international guidelines explicitly prohibits UAV sales to U.S. allies. The most obvious legal restriction on drone exports comes from the MTCR requirement that “greatest restraint” be applied to the sale of UAVs that can deliver a payload of at least 500 kilograms to a range of at least 300 kilometers—this includes the Predator, the Reaper, and the Global Hawk, some of the most commonly used U.S. drones. But some argue that since UAVs are not best suited for carrying WMDs, they should be fall under the same export laws as regular aircraft. “The question of selling drones is the same question as selling manned airplanes, or even selling rifles,” said Singer. “You can’t take a yes or no blanket policy. If you don’t sell, you miss out economically and risk losing influence. If you sell willy-nilly, you can enable states to do bad things, and you become a part of it.”

Proponents of expanding drone exports say that it is in U.S. interests to equip allies with the best technology for surveillance and use of force. Italy and the United Kingdom used surveillance drones to collect intelligence information on the Taliban in Afghanistan and Italy used them to locate roadside bombs and weapons caches in Iraq. Using American-made drones increases interoperability between allied states. But to date, the U.S. has only sold complete weaponized UAV systems to the United Kingdom—although other countries, such as France, Italy, and Germany, have purchased systems capable of carrying weapons.

There is also the issue of money. According to the consulting group Forecast International, the worldwide drone market is projected to more than double in the next decade, reaching a total of $2.3 billion by 2023. As of now, the U.S. is not expected to collect the largest portion of that amount. The Government Accountability Office estimated that from 2005-2010, the U.S. sold only $144 million worth of UAV technology to other markets. Meanwhile, from 2001-2011, Israel accounted for 41 percent of global drone exports, and China is expected to overtake them soon as the leading exporter. The bulk of Chinese UAVs are currently going to the Chinese military, but they have emerged as an alternative provider in the drone marketplace to countries who can’t purchase them elsewhere. “Anyone who talks about this as a future issue is years behind the curve,” said Singer. “It’s the same as with other weapons systems, China will sell them with less political strings, and possibly at a lower cost." 

General Atomics declined to comment on UAV export code. Northrop Grumman’s Vice President Brandon Belote III rejected an interview but released the following statement: “We support changes to export control regulations that protect the security interests of the United States and simultaneously allow U.S. companies to more efficiently assist our international allies with their security needs—including those involving unmanned systems and other technologies.”

Foreign sales not only offset the cost of domestic drone purchases; they fund research and development for future UAV technology. The U.S still maintains military dominance in drone technology, primarily the ability to operate the aircraft from extremely remote distances, but military strategists worry that this edge is temporary. “By not competing in the global marketplace, our drone industry is becoming stagnant,” said Mary Cummings, a former Navy fighter pilot and member of the Stimson Center task force. “This puts the U.S. at a direct disadvantage."

U.S. hesitance to export armed drones around the world is rooted in the desire to keep the technology out of enemy reach. However, a recent RAND Corporation report found that 23 countries are already developing their own weapons-capable UAV systems, including Russia and several non-MTCR members like Iran, China, and the United Arab Emirates. Iran has already provided its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, with drones and has expressed interest further collaboration with Russia and China. China has sold a weapons-capable system to Saudi Arabia and there are reports that they have provided surveillance drones to Syria, Sudan, and Myanmar.

The Obama administration is currently in the process of a closed-door interagency review process to determine what changes need to be made to the drone export regulations. Advisors from defense industry contractors support loosening restrictions, while the State Department fears weakening the broader non-proliferation regime. Actual modifications to the MTCR are nearly impossible to make because it would require a consensus among all 34 member countries, including Russia. But U.S. interpretation of the guidelines is likely to change.