The Trump administration announced Friday that it would ease restrictions on the export of some armed drones, a policy shift that has long been sought by American defense manufacturers and some US officials worried about competition from other drone-manufacturing countries, such as China.
The move was met with immediate opposition from Democratic lawmakers, with the top Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee condemning the move. The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee commended it.
Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper confirmed Friday that the administration would allow the sale of unmanned aerial systems that travel more slowly than 800 kilometers an hour (or about 500 mph), which includes drones such as the armed MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1 Predator.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany released a statement Friday afternoon confirming the change, saying it “will increase our national security by improving the capabilities of our partners and increase our economic security by opening the expanding UAS market to United States industry.”
The change involves a shift in how the US interprets the Missile Technology Control Regime, an informal pact involving 35 countries that seeks to limit the risks of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by controlling exports of technologies that can be used as delivery systems.
While the regime was established in the late 1980s to govern the export of missiles, it also applies to drones that are capable of delivering payloads of at least 500 kilograms (about 1,100 pounds) to a range of at least 300 kilometers (about 185 miles).
“The MTCR’s standards are more than three decades old. Not only do these outdated standards give an unfair advantage to countries outside of the MTCR and hurt United States industry, they also hinder our deterrence capability abroad by handicapping our partners and allies with subpar technology,” McEnany said.
Previously, drones capable of carrying payloads of 500 kilograms for more than 300 kilometers were subject to a “strong presumption of denial” for sale to foreign countries. However, the US was able to sell Reaper drones to close allies such as the UK and France.
While the US once was a dominant leader in drone weapons technology, other countries such as China and Turkey have made progress in building cheaper drones capable of conducting airstrikes on the battlefield. China is not a member of the MTCR, a fact that has led some US officials to express concern that Beijing would dominate the armed-drone export market, particularly to Gulf countries, which represent some of the world’s biggest purchasers of arms.
A congressional staffer said they believed the change had been made to allow sales to these countries, telling CNN, “That’s the only logical reason for doing this.”
Cooper said the change “allows the United States to export UAS for specific purposes … to support ISR – intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance missions – also to support counterterrorism missions as well as border integrity or border security operations.”
He said the change “poses no risk for weapons of mass destruction delivery.”
Asked how they would prevent the sale of the unmanned aerial systems to countries with documented cases of human rights abuses, Cooper said the sales would be on a “case by case” basis and would be examined in the frame of the Arms Export Control Act, the conventional arms transfer policy and the export policy on unmanned aerial systems.
“It’s incumbent upon the United States that we ensure that the systems we sell are used responsibly and will not threaten our interests or those of our allies,” he said.
‘A very tough sell’
A congressional staffer told CNN on Friday that Congress has received no proposals for any specific sales of armed unmanned aerial systems.
Asked if Congress would approve such sales, the staffer said it would depend on the country but “this is going to be a very tough sell to the Congress to be providing this type of equipment beyond our closest allies.”
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, condemned the move.
“Once again, Donald Trump is unilaterally abrogating a long-standing arms control agreement because it is inconvenient for his ‘anything goes’ policy to sell dangerous weapons seemingly anywhere to anyone,” Engel said in a statement, adding that “this will certainly result in other nations abandoning MTCR restrictions that they find inconvenient for their exports.”
Menendez said that “to disregard this policy now is likely to undermine the credibility and influence of the MTCR generally, which also coordinates international controls on the sale and spread of dangerous ballistic missiles and technology around the world.”
“As we explore the repercussions of today’s announcement on our broader foreign policy goals and our national security interests, this reckless decision once again makes it more likely that we will export some of our most deadly weaponry to human rights abusers across the world,” he said.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican, welcomed the move in a tweet Friday.