Not So Fast – U.S. Drone Export Policy Isn’t As “New and Improved” As Advertised
By: Andrew Hunter
When the United States announced last month a new policy governing the export of U.S. drones, news outlets overwhelmingly declared a coming flood of U.S. military drone sales around the world. The facts tell a different story.
The president’s policy is not new, will not lead to rapid proliferation of U.S.-made drones, and does nothing to clarify the confusion about why drones should be treated differently from other weapons systems. What the policy does is build on past, case-by-case decisions. The United States has previously sold military unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to several nations. For example, the Italian Air Force acquired Predators in 2004 and the more advanced Reaper derivative in 2010. On the opposite end of the size spectrum, the United States has sold the hand-launched Raven to partners ranging from the United Kingdom to Yemen.
If the February 17 announcement didn’t constitute a truly new policy on drone exports, how should one view these rules? To paraphrase The Who: Meet the new policy, same as the old policy. In working to articulate a unified policy to govern drone exports, the government assembled an amalgamation of existing policies and practices. This has some value in providing a clear starting point for government review of these sales and offering a set of principles that the United States can use with other nations.
However, the policy in no way lowers the barrier to exports established by various agreements, including the Missile Technology Control Regime, or MTCR. Under the MTCR, unmanned systems with a range greater than 300 kilometers and a payload above 500 kilograms—such as the Predator—are subject to strict controls including a “strong presumption of denial” for export. Although the new export policy may help speed decisionmaking, the larger and more capable UAVs will still be subject to enhanced controls.
What’s most disappointing about the policy is that it in no way distinguishes what makes drones new and different. Manned assets performing many of the same functions of a UAV would not trigger enhanced review, but under the new policy, the same capability would trigger the highest degree of scrutiny when the flight controls are located remotely. Paradoxically, the policy in no way addresses the truly new aspect of UAVs, their potential for increasing degrees of autonomy. Also left unclear is the distinction between commercial and military drones in this export policy. While military drones may be engineered to better survive combat conditions, commercial UAVs will offer an 80 percent solution in almost all missions.
The U.S. drone export policy is a first step in providing a foundation from which policy can evolve, but it represents a missed opportunity to establish a forwardlooking, enduring policy. And despite arguments to the contrary, it likely will not result in a wave of new U.S. drone exports. In fact, over time, it will almost certainly become more restrictive for UAV exports than intended.