Why Washington’s New Drone Export Policy Is Good For National Security
Last Thursday, the State Department announced its updated export policy for unmanned aerial systems, popularly known as drones. While the White House framed the new plan as a means to promote American industry, the guidelines — which make it easier for the United States to sell drones to foreign allies — will almost certainly enhance U.S. national security. By exporting drones, which are on the wish lists of militaries around the world, Washington can strengthen ties with allies, enhance burden-sharing and interoperability during coalition operations, and prevent strategic competitors like China from gaining influence among Washington’s security partners.
The new guidelines streamline the sale of both armed and unarmed drones, while still maintaining stipulations that ensure recipients use exported drones in accordance with international law and international human rights law. Specifically, the new policy authorizes direct commercial sales of drone technology, allowing U.S. firms like General Atomics and Northrop Grumman to directly market certain drones to foreign governments, rather than relying on the more cumbersome government-run Foreign Military Sales program. The policy also eliminates the special scrutiny on laser designators — technology that allows drones to cue airstrikes. Under earlier policies, these factors often halted drone transfers or extended U.S. government deliberations on export approval.
U.S. drone exports have long been governed by both domestic export controls and international agreements. These regulations, like the multilateral Missile Technology Control Regime, were drafted long before unmanned and remotely piloted aircraft became common features of military arsenals. As such, these regulations often characterized long-range drones as cruise missiles. Because cruise missiles were capable of delivering nuclear or chemical weapons, there was a “strong presumption of denial” for drone exports. The Obama administration initially followed these guidelines because they believed more American exports could lead other powers to sell drones to states that might use them in ways that violated international law. When it became clear that states like China and Israel were more than willing to export drones despite U.S. restraint, the administration released a drone export policy in 2015 that attempted to advance its national security interests and slightly ease restrictions on drone exports. The 2015 policy established a drone-specific framework to govern foreign transfers, but still required all exports to go through slow government approval processes.
Under past policies, even close U.S. allies faced difficulties acquiring U.S. drones. Italy, for instance, was unable to arm its U.S.-produced Reapers between 2011 and 2015. Jordan was barred from receiving unarmed variants of Predator drone that it hoped to use during counter-ISIL operations.
Without access to U.S.-produced drones, states had two options: either give up drone acquisition efforts or seek out new suppliers. Abandoning drone procurement was impractical since states buy these military technologies to meet specific military requirements or to signal technical and military prowess to domestic and international audiences. As a result, states — including close U.S. allies — were forced to find suppliers who were more willing to hawk their wares. Saudi Arabia and Jordan, for instance, turned to China to build drone fleets filled with Predator knock-offs, and India invested $400 million on Israeli drones.
When allies turn to other states for advanced military technology, U.S. national security suffers in three critical ways.
First, withholding military technology from close allies and partners can strain security relationships. Since these partnerships are grounded in trust, shared interests, and common threats, partners may equate a state’s unwillingness to export drones with waning loyalty and commitment to other security agreements. For instance, the former top Italian Air Force general questioned Washington’s initial denial of Italy’s request for armed drones, arguing that “it seemed impossible that a loyal ally could be ruled out” from receiving armed drones. He noted that “in Afghanistan, we would have saved Italian lives if we had had armed drones.” By streamlining the process for foreign states to acquire U.S. drones, the new policy helps reduce this sort of tension that can engender mistrust and muddy interactions between Washington and its partners.
Second, denying exports can degrade effectiveness and interoperability during coalition operations. By not exporting weapons to allies, supplier states potentially limit the ability of allies to share operational burdens. For instance, export controls and international agreements that blocked the transfer of armed drones to many NATO allies left Washington responsible for operating the bulk of armed drones in Afghanistan. This demand placed additional strain on the already under-manned and overstretched American capacity. Additionally, if states turn to alternate suppliers, their ability to easily operate with American forces may be reduced. Common systems and similar technical infrastructure helps streamline information sharing, planning, maintenance, and operations. Given the frequency of coalition operations in the current security environment, interoperability is key to increasing operational effectiveness and reducing the likelihood of mishaps and confusion during future crises and contingencies.
Third, and perhaps most strategically important, Washington loses political and military influence when states turn to other suppliers. When a state transfers arms, it hopes to establish influence in the recipient state throughout and beyond the lifecycle of the weapon system. In the short term, influence is established via agreements to train personnel or maintain equipment. Producer states design training curricula and can withhold future deliveries, parts, or maintenance if a recipient takes actions that run counter to their interests.
Over time, these relationships often deepen into wider security partnerships. For instance, personnel who operate U.S.-produced equipment frequently attend training or exercises in the United States. There, they gain exposure to U.S. military principles, culture, and values. Because of these experiences, these personnel may be selected for professional military education programs like the U.S. Air Force’s Air War College later in their careers. These relationships can strengthen bonds between personnel from the United States and states that receive U.S.-built equipment, ensuring long-term American influence. The new policy makes it easier for the United States to provide drones to foreign states, helping to prevent Washington from losing influence to China and other supplier states who are eager to increase their global sway.
While the export of U.S.-produced drones enhances national security, what effect will increased drone sales have on international security?
Drone proliferation pessimists often lament that weakening drone export controls will make it easier for states to launch military operations and destabilize security by triggering arms racing between states eager to one-up their rival’s drone capabilities. These concerns are likely overstated for two reasons.
First, the transfer of drones is unlikely to be inherently destabilizing. To be sure, the reduced risk associated with operating remotely piloted aircraft may lead risk-averse decision-makers to more frequently launch drones on intelligence gathering and strike missions. However, limited transfers of drone technology have had a minimal effect on regional stability. For instance, Iraq and Nigeria have used recently acquired drones to launch missile strikes on suspected terrorists, but these operations have been limited in scale and geographic scope. Carrying out worldwide drone operations like those conducted by the United States requires a massive technological and logistical infrastructure, and as I describe in a forthcoming book chapter, a complex backbone of intelligence personnel and organizations that costs billions and takes decades to develop. Even if countries acquire drone aircraft, it takes time to develop the required network of bases, satellites, computer systems, and personnel before a state can conduct sustained, large-scale drone operations.
Second, even if the sale of drones under the new policy triggers drone arms racing, remotely piloted aircraft often have a stabilizing effect on crisis situations. As I have argued elsewhere, drones allow states to carry out military operations without risking significant escalation. Drones can help stabilize crises by collecting intelligence that can make subsequent operations more precise or limited, or can be deployed in lieu of more escalatory means, like ground forces or manned aircraft. While states may be more prone to launch drones on risky missions, states are unlikely to take escalatory military or diplomatic responses after a drone is lost to enemy action. In other words, drones provide a de-escalatory off-ramp that typically is not an option when inhabited assets are involved. For instance, the Pentagon largely ignored Syria’s downing of a remotely piloted Predator reconnaissance drone in 2015. In contrast, Syria’s recent shoot down of an inhabited Israel Air Force F-16 fighter in February triggered a massive Israeli retaliation that reportedly destroyed half of Syrian air defenses.
As drones become an increasingly common fixture on the modern battlefield, the new export policy marks an important step in managing their proliferation and promoting Washington’s national security interests. Streamlining the drone export process helps Washington strengthen ties with allies and partners, enhances interoperability during coalition operations, and limits the ability of competitors to jeopardize U.S. influence. But more can be done to ensure allies can acquire U.S. drones. For instance, one retired Air Force general just called for changes to the Missile Technology Control Regime that would reclassify drones like the Reaper and ease their export. Until then, China and other drone producer states may attempt to woo customers by undercutting U.S. prices. Or, they might impose fewer political conditions to sales, allowing exports to states with shadier human rights records.
Even if some clients have already purchased drones from other suppliers, the new policy ensures that Washington is at least in the game as a viable alternative as states continue to expand their drone fleets.
Erik Lin-Greenberg is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University, where he studies international relations. He previously served as an active duty Air Force officer. The conclusions and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any U.S. government agency.