Trump Administration Seeks to Expand Sales of Armed Drones
Posted April 19, 2018 5:40 p.m. EDT
Updated April 19, 2018 5:42 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — A day after President Donald Trump promised to slash the red tape involved in weapons sales, the administration announced on Thursday a new policy that could vastly expand sales of armed drones, a contentious emblem of the shift toward remotely controlled warfare.
That change, in addition to a newly released update to the policy governing which nations are allowed to buy sophisticated U.S.-made weapons, is intended to accelerate arms sales, a key priority of Trump.
The president seemed to foreshadow the new policies Wednesday night, when he said at a news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan that after allies order weapons from the United States, “we will get it taken care of, and they will get their equipment rapidly.”
“It would be, in some cases, years before orders would take place because of bureaucracy with Department of Defense, State Department,” Trump said. “We are short-circuiting that. It’s now going to be a matter of days. If they’re our allies, we are going to help them get this very important, great military equipment.”
The new policies, though, will do little to change the often yearslong intervals between orders and deliveries of weapons, but the State Department announced that it intended over the next 90 days to re-evaluate the process that can sometimes lead to such gaps.
Delays in delivering weapons systems have long been an irritant to foreign governments and domestic manufacturers, and almost every administration in the modern era has tried to fix the process. Top aides in the Trump White House have frequently called officials at the State Department and the Pentagon to try to hurry things along.
But the deals can pose an array of challenges, involving not only national security issues, such as the transfer of sensitive technologies, but also economic ones. India, the world’s largest weapons buyer, often requires defense firms to build weapons in India in partnership with Indian firms, the kind of requirements that the Trump administration finds objectionable in China with regard to cars and other products.
The biggest change announced Thursday involves the sale of larger armed drones like the Predator and the Reaper, which have been the workhorses of the fight against insurgents in Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan. President Barack Obama embraced the weapons but was also so troubled by such remote warfare tools that he placed unusual restrictions on their sale.
Those restrictions have allowed drone-makers in Israel, China and Turkey to capture a large part of a market that U.S. manufacturers had pioneered, something the Trump administration wants to reverse.
The new drone export policy “will level the playing field by enabling U.S. firms to increase their direct sales to authorized allies and partners,” Peter Navarro, assistant to the president for trade and manufacturing policy, said in a news briefing Thursday. He added, “This will keep our defense industrial base in the vanguard of emerging defense technologies while creating thousands of additional jobs with good wages and generating substantial export revenues.”
Navarro noted that at last year’s Paris Air Show, Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group of China showed off its Wing Loong II, a medium-altitude long-endurance drone that he described as a knockoff of General Atomics’ Reaper. He said the market for such aircraft was expected to be $50 billion annually within a decade.
Under the old policy, only Britain, France and Italy were approved to purchase armed drones, according to Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.
As more countries are approved, “the risk is that countries may be more willing to use military force when they can do so without risking their own people,” Gettinger said.
Sales of smaller, unarmed drones have fewer restrictions, and U.S. manufacturers dominate the market for those, Gettinger said.
The newly announced changes in the policy governing which countries can purchase sophisticated U.S.-made weapons, known as the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy, instruct the government to take domestic economic concerns into greater account than it has in the past.
The new policy also says that consideration should be given to minimizing civilian casualties. That could potentially justify sales of “smart” bombs, which are easier to direct to specific targets. But experts said that the changes are not likely to have much effect on sales.
“I think it’s political posturing,” said Rachel Stohl, managing director of the Stimson Center, a think tank focusing on foreign policy. “We already sell to almost everybody in the world. Are we really going to open markets to places like Iran and North Korea now? I don’t think so.”
Human rights advocates denounced the changes as loosening rules they viewed as already too permissive. John Sifton, an advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said that some of the changes were intended to make questionable arms sales easier to conduct.
“It’s going to be easier to give licenses in cases like Saudi Arabia, which has a history of launching military strikes that harm huge numbers of civilians,” Sifton said.
The Obama administration was also enthusiastic about foreign weapons sales, which soared during its tenure. Direct weapons sales declined in the first year of the Trump administration from the year before and are now roughly half the level seen in 2011, the first full year of the Arab Spring.
The policy changes were announced two days after a hearing on Capitol Hill during which senators from both parties expressed anguish at the vast humanitarian crisis in Yemen, caused in part by Saudi Arabia’s use of U.S. weapons.
“Maybe part of the humanitarian answer is supplying less weapons to a war,” Sen. Rand Paul, a R-Ky., said during the hearing.
A bipartisan group of senators has proposed legislation that would require the State Department to routinely certify that Saudi Arabia is taking steps to end the suffering there, the sort of review that slows weapons purchases. The Trump administration opposes the legislation.