Exporting US DronesOp-Ed
A year before the Sept. 11 attacks, a US drone flew over an Afghan al-Qaeda training camp, beaming back video footage that showed a tall man in white. That figure, the CIA concluded, was Osama bin Laden.
But it wasn’t until after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that the US was able to get airborne surveillance drones armed with Hellfire missiles with the goal of eliminating the world’s number one terrorist. In November 2001, a top al-Qaida commander was targeted in Afghanistan, the first known kill by an armed drone.
In the years since, drones, known today by the bureaucratic “unmanned aerial systems” (UAS) title, have become predominant in US counterterrorism policy, being used in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
Contrary to the movies, most are on surveillance missions. But when they are sent to target terrorists, they are better able to distinguish between civilians and combatants than fighter jets or cruise missiles.
Now, thanks to a years-in-the-making policy unveiled by the State Department this month, the US is closer to exporting more military and commercial drones, including armed systems like the Predator and Reaper to our closest allies. This is long overdue.
The Foreign Affairs Committee oversees US arms sales policy. For several years, I have pushed the Obama administration to finalize its lethargic review and implement new UAS export guidelines to better enable our aerospace and defense industries to build allied capacity.
In a perfect world, only the United States would have armed drones. But over the last several years, it has become clear that the technical know-how and production capability to develop and sustain UAS are not unique to the US. Almost any country able to build aviation aircraft can develop a UAS using commercial, off-the-shelf technology. Indeed, one estimate puts the number of different drone programs worldwide at nearly 700.
So the technology is here to stay; certainly to be improved. The key policy question is whether it will be American, Israeli or Chinese companies taking the lion’s share of a market that is expected to be more than $7 billion in sales per year. More exports and sales mean America will continue to lead this fast growing market and cutting-edge technology. Capturing new business for US defense companies — many Southern California based — will also mean maximizing industrial expertise that can bolster the US program.
While late in coming, the State Department’s new guidelines also recognize that quicker approval for exports of armed and unarmed UAS systems will help solidify important relationships with security partners. To date, Britain is the only country to which the US had sold armed drones. Its armed Reapers have conducted operations in Afghanistan and are now deployed against ISIS.
But many more US allies have been looking to bolster their forces with drone technology, only to wait and wait. Italy has sought to add arms to its American-made drones. US companies are hoping India will buy American for its surveillance drones. The Philippines could use surveillance drones to monitor its coastal waters. And the Netherlands is purchasing four unarmed Reapers that will support NATO and other coalition operations.
For the foreseeable future, the appropriate sharing of US technology will be essential to critical counterterrorism missions against organizations like ISIS and al-Qaida. And when it is purchased from the US, we are the ones that will influence how allies use them. Training and maintenance programs will also increase partnerships with allies.
Still, don’t expect a world awash in US drones buzzing overhead. Requests from allies will still have to go through a thorough interagency review process to weigh regional considerations, “end-use assurance” from the recipient countries that sets out how the drones could be used, and other restrictions.
Israel’s “qualitative military edge” will have to be maintained. Plus Congress, through the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees, gets a say.
Of some concern, the new policy would subject the proposed sale of armed drones to a Cold War-era agreement that essentially treats drones as cruise missiles. The Missile Technology Control Regime establishes a “strong presumption of denial” for armed drone exports, but permits them on well-justified “rare occasions.” Congress will be watching to ensure this presumption isn’t undercutting the security needs of strong allies while pushing them to foreign competitors.
This month’s announcement was a welcome first step. But continual reforms will be needed to keep pace with technology, not only to ensure that our allies have timely access to this proven technology, but to enable the US defense industry to stay a step ahead of the competition abroad.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Aerospace companies are based throughout Southern California.