Game of Drones: US poised to boost unmanned aircraft exports

Govt seeks to ri­val Chi­nese, Is­raeli ad­vances

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

WASH­ING­TON: The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is near­ing com­ple­tion of new 01:00”Buy Amer­i­can” rules to make it eas­ier to sell US­made mil­i­tary drones over­seas and com­pete against fast-grow­ing Chi­nese and Is­raeli ri­vals, se­nior US of­fi­cials said.

While Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s aides work on re­lax­ing do­mes­tic reg­u­la­tions on drone sales to se­lect al­lies, Wash­ing­ton will also seek to rene­go­ti­ate a 1987 mis­sile-con­trol pact with the aim of loos­en­ing in­ter­na­tional re­stric­tions on US exports of unmanned aircraft, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment and in­dus­try sources.

At home, the US ad­min­is­tra­tion is press­ing ahead with its re­vamp of drone ex­port pol­icy un­der heavy pres­sure from Amer­i­can manufacturers and in de­fi­ance of hu­man rights ad­vo­cates who warn of the risk of fu­el­ing in­sta­bil­ity in hot spots in­clud­ing the Mid­dle East and South Asia.

The changes, part of a broader ef­fort to over­haul US arms ex­port pro­to­cols, could be rolled out by the end of the year un­der a pres­i­den­tial pol­icy de­cree, the ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials told Reuters on con­di­tion of anonymity. The aim is to help US drone mak­ers, pi­o­neers in re­mote-con­trolled aircraft that have be­come a cen­ter­piece of coun­tert­er­ror­ism strat­egy, re­assert them­selves in the over­seas mar­ket where China, Is­rael and oth­ers of­ten sell un­der less-cum­ber­some re­stric­tions.

Sim­pli­fied ex­port rules could eas­ily gen­er­ate thou­sands of jobs, but it’s too early to be more spe­cific, said Remy Nathan, a lob­by­ist with the Aero­space In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion. The main ben­e­fi­cia­ries would be top US drone mak­ers Gen­eral Atomics, Boe­ing, Northrop Grum­man, Tex­tron and Lock­heed Mar­tin. “This will al­low us to get in the game in a way that we’ve never been be­fore,” said one se­nior US of­fi­cial.

‘Buy Amer­i­can Agenda’ Reg­u­la­tions are ex­pected to be loos­ened es­pe­cially on the sale of un­armed in­tel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and re­con­nais­sance drones, the most so­phis­ti­cated of which carry high-res­o­lu­tion cam­eras and laser-guided tar­get­ing sys­tems to aid mis­siles fired from war­planes, naval ves­sels or ground launch­ers. De­lib­er­a­tions have been more com­pli­cated, how­ever, on how to al­ter ex­port rules for mis­sile-equipped drones like the Preda­tor and Reaper. Hunter-killer drones, which have es­sen­tially changed the face of mod­ern war­fare, are in­creas­ingly in de­mand and US mod­els con­sid­ered the most ad­vanced. The push is not only part of Trump’s “Buy Amer­i­can” agenda to boost US busi­ness abroad but also re­flects a more ex­port-friendly ap­proach to weapons sales that the ad­min­is­tra­tion sees as a way to wield in­flu­ence with for­eign part­ners, the se­nior of­fi­cial said.

Un­der a draft of the new rules, a clas­si­fied list of coun­tries num­ber­ing in dou­ble dig­its would be given more of a fast-track treat­ment for mil­i­tary drone pur­chases, a sec­ond se­nior of­fi­cial said. The fa­vored group would in­clude some of Wash­ing­ton’s clos­est NATO al­lies and part­ners in the “Five Eyes” in­tel­li­gence al­liance: Bri­tain, Aus­tralia, Canada and New Zealand, ac­cord­ing to the in­dus­try source. Rachel Stohl, di­rec­tor of the con­ven­tional de­fense pro­gram at the Stim­son Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton, said if US drone ex­port rules be­come too le­nient, they could give more gov­ern­ments with poor hu­man rights records the means to “tar­get their own civil­ians.” Trump’s pre­de­ces­sor, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, re­vised the pol­icy for mil­i­tary drone exports in 2015. But US manufacturers com­plained it was still too re­stric­tive com­pared with main com­peti­tors China and Is­rael.

US drone mak­ers are vy­ing for a larger share of the global mil­i­tary drone mar­ket. Even be­fore the com­ing changes, the Teal Group, a mar­ket re­search firm, has fore­cast sales will rise from $2.8 bil­lion in 2016 to $9.4 bil­lion in 2025. Lin­den Blue, CEO of pri­vately held Gen­eral Atomics, the US leader in mil­i­tary drones, vis­ited the White House re­cently to lobby for his in­dus­try, a per­son fa­mil­iar with the dis­cus­sions said.

Among the US changes will be a for­mal rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of the “pre­sump­tion of de­nial”, a long­stand­ing ob­sta­cle to most mil­i­tary drones sales, that would make it eas­ier and faster to se­cure ap­proval, the of­fi­cials said. Bri­tain, and only re­cently Italy, are the only coun­tries that had been al­lowed to buy armed US drones. A long-de­layed $2 bil­lion sale to In­dia of Gen­eral Atomics’ Guardian sur­veil­lance drones fi­nally se­cured US ap­proval in June. But New Delhi’s re­quest for armed drones has stalled. A ma­jor hur­dle to ex­panded sales of the most pow­er­ful US drones is the Mis­sile Tech­nol­ogy Con­trol Regime, or MTCR, a 1987 ac­cord signed by the United States and 34 other coun­tries, which set rules for the sale and pur­chase of mis­siles. It cat­e­go­rizes drones with a range greater than of 185 miles (300 km) and a pay­load above 1,100 pounds (500 kg) as cruise mis­siles, re­quir­ing ex­tremely tight im­port/ex­port con­trols. To gain an in­ter­na­tional stamp of ap­proval for the re­laxed US ex­port rules, US of­fi­cials want the MTCR rene­go­ti­ated.

State Depart­ment of­fi­cials at­tend­ing an an­nual meet­ing of the mis­sile-con­trol group in Dublin next week will present a “dis­cus­sion pa­per” propos­ing that sales of drones - which did not ex­ist when the agree­ment was cre­ated - be treated more le­niently than the mis­sile tech­nol­ogy that the MTCR was de­signed to reg­u­late, ac­cord­ing to a US of­fi­cial and in­dus­try sources. There is no guar­an­tee of a con­sen­sus. Rus­sia, which has NATO mem­bers along its bor­ders, could re­sist such changes, the US of­fi­cial said.

China and Is­rael

China, which is not an MTCR sig­na­tory, has pushed ahead with drone sales to some coun­tries with close ties to Wash­ing­ton, such as Iraq, Saudi Ara­bia and Nige­ria, but which have failed to pass U.S. reg­u­la­tory muster. Chi­nese mod­els such as the CH-3 and CH-4 have been com­pared to the Reaper but are much cheaper. US of­fi­cials said Bei­jing sells them with few strings at­tached.

The Chi­nese for­eign min­istry in­sists it takes a “cau­tious and re­spon­si­ble at­ti­tude” to mil­i­tary drone exports. Is­rael, which is out­side the MTCR but has pledged to abide by it, com­petes with US manufacturers on the ba­sis of high-tech stan­dards. But it will not sell to neigh­bors in the volatile Mid­dle East. Is­rael sold $525 mil­lion worth of drones over­seas in 2016, ac­cord­ing de­fense min­istry data. US drone mak­ers and their sup­port­ers within the ad­min­is­tra­tion con­tend that other coun­tries are go­ing to pro­lif­er­ate drones, so they should not be left be­hind. — Reuters

‘Buy Amer­i­can’ to boost US busi­ness abroad

The Avenger extended-range UAV is man­u­fac­tured by Gen­eral Atomics.

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