US Drone Sales Abroad: Piloting a Tricky Course


Español A February 17 US State Department press release lays out the details of a new policy for the export of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as drones. This is a watershed moment for Washington, which has hitherto maintained strict controls over the sale of US drones, especially those capable of fielding any sort of armament.

Until now, drone exports have been limited almost exclusively to reconnaissance UAVs, and were managed on a case-by-case basis. This new regulation, however, will enable US drone producers such as General Atomics (manufacturer of the MQ 1 Predator and MQ 9 Reaper) to begin exporting both armed and unarmed variants to countries approved by the US government.

The easing of drone sales abroad will help the US manage proliferation of new technology. (Wikimedia)

Exporters will no longer be forced to plead their case with the Pentagon and State Department officials, who have consistently refused to grant the sale of “advanced military hardware.”

Although the new policy has only been in effect for little more than a week, US defense manufacturers are confident that it will enable them to increase their market share in an industry currently dominated by Israel and China.

A number of international buyers have already indicated interest, with talks underway with allies including France, Italy, Turkey, and India.

Controlled Proliferation

This sudden shift was in many ways inevitable. As much as pundits and self-proclaimed policy experts may want to keep a tight grip on this kind of technology, its eventual proliferation is a given.

For previous examples of this process, one only needs to look at the development of nuclear weapons. Once viewed as a cutting-edge technology reserved for a select club of nations — those with defense budgets to rival the GDP of entire continents — nuclear weapons are now within reach of “rogue states” capable of amassing the materiel needed to produce their own bombs.

Over time, the United States came to recognize that it would be more powerful with nuclear allies than it would be as a lone actor, sharing the costs and responsibilities of mutual defense. Advanced technology only remains advanced for a short period of time; as with nuclear weapons, so with drones.

So in an effort to maintain some semblance of control over the proliferation of armed drones, the United States has opted to engage with friendly nations seeking the technology rather than trying desperately to hoard it.

The sale of UAV technology to vetted allies, according to defense experts, allows the United States to engage in “burden sharing” — defense jargon for giving someone else the tools to fix a problem.

Who Benefits?

Who’s on the list to purchase US drones? The list of primary recipients is certain to be a roll call of traditional US allies: France, Britain (the only nation to already receive armed versions), Canada, and Australia, among others. But also in the queue are countries in areas of “operational interest” to the United States: India has entered into initial negotiations, while the United Arab Emirates is at the final stages of approval.

Over time, the number of states operating US drones will only increase. Unmanned technology is nothing new — drones have been used since the Second World War — but the power of new technology lies in its ability to operate over huge distances with an instantaneous connection between hardware and a remote user.

However, the infrastructure behind drones requires extensive Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, (ISR) capacity — a capacity that only a few nations around the globe currently possess, most of whom are already using drones to various degrees.

But nations with limited domestic ISR capabilities are not out of the drone game entirely. The United States has a long history of intelligence sharing, and has disseminated information it has deemed vital to shared interests. So sales of US drones won’t be the only process to negotiate; questions also remain over which nations will benefit from the Washington’s untouchable ISR program.

This policy shift enables the US to maintain a certain level of control over a burgeoning market, while also promoting its own domestic industry. Yet while the US defense industry is likely rubbing its hands in glee at the loosening of export restrictions, significant checks remain in place.

The State Department requires all recipients agree to “end-use assurances,” as well as “end-use monitoring,” whose role is to ensure adherence to human-rights principles and prevent “unlawful surveillance or use unlawful force against their domestic populations.”

Edited by Laurie Blair.

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