Under Trump Administration, U.S. Reviews Drone Export Policy

 - August 31, 2017, 8:52 AM
China displayed the Reaper-like Wing Loong II and an array of weapons at the Paris Air Show in June. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The Trump administration is reviewing U.S. export control policy with an eye toward relaxing restrictions that block sales to some countries of unmanned aerial vehicles. Industry is encouraging the review, with one major manufacturer saying it has mounted “a very strong campaign” to educate lawmakers on the consequences of limiting such exports.

The policy reassessment is taking two tracks. Under the eight-month-old Trump administration, federal agencies have been more receptive to clearing UAV exports under existing policy, as evidenced in June when the State Department approved the sale of 22 General Atomics MQ-9B Sea Guardians to India. The U.S. announced a new export policy in February 2015 that provided for the sale of military and commercial UAVs to other than close allies on a case-by-case basis, but it required that recipient nations agree to “end use assurances” as a condition of sale.

Longer term, the U.S. seeks to change how UAVs are categorized by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an assemblage of 35 nations that have agreed to limit the proliferation of missiles and missile technology. Changes to the multilateral agreement then would flow to broader export policy.

“There seems to be more interest in the Trump administration in supporting U.S. industry and foreign sales of UAVs than maybe there was in the prior [Obama] administration,” said Eric McClafferty, an attorney specializing in international trade with the law firm Kelley Drye. “They’re looking at particular license applications and proposals with a little more liberal view toward allowing U.S. companies to make those sales within the parameters of existing policy. Secondly, you have this MTCR approach where they’re trying to carve out different treatment of UAVs under the MTCR.”

Under the current administration, U.S. negotiators are preparing a white paper to present at the MTCR Technical Experts Meeting in October; the expectation is the paper will make the case that UAVs should be treated differently than the missile technology the regime seeks to contain. Assuming it is accepted, the proposal would then be taken up at the group’s following plenary meeting.

“The idea in that white paper, as I understand it, is to take a look at segregating out certain UAVs that would currently be considered Category 1 and potentially moving them into Category 2,” said McClafferty.

As described by the MTCR, Category 1 items include ballistic missiles, space launch vehicles, sounding rockets and UAVs—including cruise missiles and target and reconnaissance drones—capable of delivering a 500 kg (1,102 pound) or greater payload to a range of at least 300 km (186 miles). To these items, “greatest restraint is applied” in allowing their transfer between nations. Category 2 items can have the same 300 km or greater range, but are less capable in the payload they can carry.

“What I think they’re settling on is looking at a speed criterion, to be able to drop out some of the Cat 1 UAVs down into Cat 2,” based on how fast an unmanned aircraft flies, with the dividing line falling somewhere in the range of 500 km to 800 km (310 miles-to-497 miles) per hour, said McClafferty. There could also be a distinction made between turboprop- and jet-powered aircraft, he surmised.

Domestic manufacturers of unmanned aircraft systems have chafed against U.S. export control policy and the MTCR for years. During a roundtable meeting with reporters in mid-August at the Poway, California, headquarters of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI), CEO Linden Blue described his company’s efforts to affect U.S. government policy. Traditionally guarded in its public profile, GA-ASI described the media visit as its first such event.

"For recent years and under multiple administrations we’ve been active in trying to educate the executive branch and the legislative branch on the effects of the MTCR on particularly the medium-altitude UAV and the consequences of severely limiting our ability to export beyond NATO and the treaty allies and sometimes even within NATO and the treaty allies,” said Blue. “We have a very strong campaign going on to educate [policymakers] on the consequences. We can only speculate on what’s going to be received and acted upon.”

Blue was outspoken in arguing that export restrictions are handcuffing U.S. industry while allowing other countries such as China that are less constrained to sell UAVs abroad. In its latest annual report to Congress on the state of China’s military, the U.S. Department of Defense said China in recent years has sold armed drones to several countries in the Middle East, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE. In June, China’s Chengdu Aircraft group displayed the Wing Loong II medium-altitude long-endurance UAV—which bears a close resemblance to GA-ASI’s MQ-9 Reaper—at the Paris Air Show. “They’re here,” Blue said, when asked how soon China will become competitive.

"The approach is not to say, ‘let us sell more’ because nobody really cares,” Blue said of GA-ASI’s approach to the issue. “Part of the education process is that if you don’t have the ability to provide hardware and, importantly, all the logistics support into some of these countries that are friendly to the United States but not treaty allies, not in NATO, then what you end up doing is indirectly subsidizing foreign competition that goes into those countries and sells the hardware.

"But when you sell hardware like this that means you also begin building a logistics chain and you begin starting a system integration with those local militaries that’s going to last for many years—decades probably,” he continued. You’re setting it up for someone else to do that and for the United States not to do that. It’s an abdication of American influence from the government perspective that we are focusing on.”