Drone Diplomacy

June 3, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

The United States is considered one of, if not the go-to nation when conflict strikes somewhere on the globe.  The U.S. provides billions of dollars of monetary and military aid to partner nations to address security concerns and to quell threats.  By most accounts, the United States has the most adept and the most advanced military capability in the world.  Sharing these resources helps bolster alliances while serving critical national security interests.

In recent years, the U.S. military has made great use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or more commonly, drones.  For much of the last ten years, the U.S. has enjoyed a virtual monopoly on this technology and has put that to good use – as evidenced by successes against terrorist entities.  The ability of these aircraft to loiter and monitor a particular point of interest 24/7 combined with the ability to perform lethal strikes has made these devices a preferred tool among military commanders and political leaders alike.  These aircraft, referred to as medium-altitude, long endurance, or MALE – despite limits in more contested environments with more advanced military equipment – have become one of the premier military tools in modern warfare.

The U.S. monopoly on these types of aircraft, and unmanned aircraft more generally, is beginning to diminish as a 2012 RAND Corporation report indicated that more than 70 nations have acquired UAVs with 23 either already in possession or development of armed UAVs, albeit, less advanced than the capabilities of U.S. drones.  The U.S., however, still maintains the largest drone fleet in the world.  As such, there have been calls for the U.S. to provide this technology to allies to bolster security ties and capabilities.  It appears this policy is coming to fruition, albeit, with limitations.

The State Department, in February, released an unclassified summary of an emerging U.S. export policy for military drones.  The new policy, which has been long sought after, explains the various standards the U.S. will employ in exporting drones to other nations.  Of particular importance, the export policy will assess transfers and exports “on a case-by-case basis under” domestic policy directives as well as domestic and international guidelines.  Under the policy, the U.S. outlined criteria recipient nations must meet as a means to ensure that exported drones are implemented responsibly and “consistent with U.S. national security and foreign policy interests, including economic security, as well as with U.S. values and international standards.”

The issue of drone exports has received greater attention more recently concerning a key U.S. ally and their fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.  Jordan was granted a Major non-NATO Ally – a designation enjoyed officially by 15 nations from Africa to South Asia that “among other things, makes Jordan eligible to receive excess U.S. defense articles, training, and equipment loans for cooperative research and development.” Despite this designation, Jordan was denied in October the sale of General Atomics’ Predator XP, a non-weaponized variant of its MQ-1 Predator drone used by the U.S. military in a primarily surveillance role, but can be outfitted with two HELLFIRE missiles.  Jordan has been considered a crucial partner of the U.S. led coalition to thwart IS in Iraq and Syria.

One member of Congress has been particularly vocal toward the denial to Jordan.  Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), a former Marine, represents the district in which both the Predator and its larger cousin, the MQ-9 Reaper are made. Hunter has sent the Obama administration a series of letters regarding denial of exporting Predator XPs and urging the administration to aid Jordan, considered a critical ally in the region.  In his most recent letter, Hunter expressed that he is aware of Chinese representatives in Jordan to “discuss operations, logistics and maintenance associated with the urgent sale of weaponized unmanned systems.”

First reported by Defense One, Hunter proposed in an earlier letter a workaround to allow Jordan to acquire these unmanned systems without officially exporting them or interfering U.S. interests that Israel maintains a “qualitative military edge” in the region.  The solution, according to Hunter’s March 9 letter, would be that “Jordanian pilots would fly the operational missions but the assets themselves would remain under the ownership of the Air Force. Asset maintenance, launch and recovery would be the responsibility of General Atomics—the designer and the manufacturer of the MQ-1. The request, if approved, would ensure Jordan the ability to quickly acquire this much needed advanced capability as it confronts IS.”

The stringent export policy, especially concerning closely held military equipment, has angered private companies who wish to market their products to a wider international audience and members of Congress who wish to aid U.S. allies.  “American companies have long pushed for looser restrictions to allow them to better compete with foreign firms,” Defense One reported.  According to Rachel Stohl, associate with the Stimson Center’s Managing Across Boundaries Initiative, there was a misconception among the media when the State Department released the unclassified summary for its new drone export policy that the floodgates would open allowing U.S. drones to be exported en mass.  “In reality, however,” Stohl wrote recently, “the new policy does not actually loosen export controls on drones as U.S. drone exports were not automatically prohibited in the past.”  In fact, two former treasury secretaries pointed to how U.S. export policy for weapons is seen in a bad light internationally, even among the Chinese.  “For its part, China castigates the U.S. for…its export-control laws, especially those restricting the export of technologies with potential military applications,” wrote Hank Paulson and Robert Rubin.

As Defense One noted, Hunter’s assertion further signals China’s assertiveness in not only aggressively developing unmanned technology, but their desire to market it around the globe – to U.S. allies no less.  This follows startling assessments in a recent report by the Defense Department to Congress regarding Chinese military capabilities.  “Some estimates indicate China plans to produce upwards of 41,800 land-and sea-based unmanned systems…During 2013, China began incorporating its UAVs into military exercises and conducted [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] ISR over the East China Sea,” the report asserted.  The South and East China Seas have become increasingly contested and tense recently with China developing man-made islands in international waters and asserting sovereignty around them to the point of threatening U.S. ISR flights to exit the area.

The U.S. has previously exported drones to several NATO partners such as France, Italy, and the United Kingdom.  As recently as February – though prior to the release of State’s new export policy summary – the Defense Department announced the possible sale of 4 MQ-9 Block 5 Reapers – used primarily by the U.S. military as a “hunter-killer” combined attack/surveillance aircraft – at $339 million to the Netherlands.

“The Netherlands requests this capability to provide for the defense of its deployed troops, regional security, and interoperability with the U.S. The proposed sale will improve the Netherland’s capability to meet current and future threats by providing improved ISR coverage that promotes increased battlefield situational awareness, anticipates enemy intent, augments combat search and rescue, and provides ground troop support,” a U.S. government release stated.  “The Netherlands is one of the major political and economic powers in Europe and NATO and an ally of the United States in the pursuit of peace and stability. It is vital to the U.S. national interest to assist the Netherlands to develop and maintain a strong and ready self-defense capability.”

The U.K. benefits from armed drone sales from the U.S.  According to recent numbers released by the Ministry of Defense, U.K. flown Reaper drones have conducted 301 missions over Iraq firing 102 Hellfire missiles and 50 missions over Syria, though, the majority of Reaper missions have been ISR with only 17% of missions involving firing weapons – all part of the 60 nation anti-IS coalition.  The U.K. has also operated similar drones in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.

Additionally, the U.S. has exported drones to South Korea, another Major non-NATO Ally, to address security concerns from North Korea.  The drones exported to South Korea a few years ago were RQ-4 Global Hawks, which are considered high-altitude, long-endurance, or HALE, of which weaponized variants are not used.  “South Korea needs such systems to assume top responsibility for intelligence-gathering from the U.S.-led Combined Forces Command as scheduled in 2015,” a report from Reuters stated quoting from a Pentagon notice sent to Congress.

Europe, however, is signaling that it is interested in reducing its dependency on other nations for drone technology.  Under a new multi-year study dubbed MALE 2020, European ministers agreed to carry out a study for a European MALE UAV program.  Several officials from various European countries and industry were quoted as asserting that a European-exclusive MALE program will allow leaders to deploy MALE UAVs on their own terms to aid their specific military needs and offer them greater independence.  It is unclear how much U.S. export policy has played in this decision, especially concerning several European nations that belong to NATO have operated U.S. manufactured drones.  The U.K. is developing a more robust MALE program as evidenced by the Scavenger Program, which “is intended to deliver future UK capability for ‘deep and persistent armed ISR collection from 2018 to 2030’, as a replacement for Reaper, though, the Reaper may be retained as the U.K.’s “Core Capability.”

Canada has also expressed interest in renewing their quest in developing a drone fleet for both domestic and international missions and preliminary assessments seem as though Canada has its sights set on the U.S.-made Predator.  Canada has operated drones from other nations’ private companies but now expressed its desires for a MALE program, of which one currently does not exist.  In addition to the Predator MALE UAV’s potential to be exported to Canada’s defense forces, it has also been reported that Northrop Grumman, a U.S. company, offered their HALE Global Hawk to Canada for Arctic operations, though Canada signaled it would be too expensive.  In fact, many in the U.S. military have expressed similar sentiments toward the Global Hawk, thought to have been the solution and next generation for the U-2 spy plane, despite some estimates that it is more costly to run than the U-2 manned aircraft.

As is always the case, nations do not want to tip their hand when it comes to military superiority.  However, military aid partnerships help nations maintain interoperability in critical operations and also serve in the national security interests of the U.S.  “[United States] export control rules for UAVs do not appear well-suited to advancing US national security objectives,” the Stimson Center Task Force on US Drone Policy wrote in its report released in the summer of 2014.  “A poorly conceived control system will have the opposite effect, suppressing useful innovation, limiting interoperability with allies, reducing US influence over foreign UAV development and weakening the defense industrial base.”  This might already be a reality.

As drones become more integrated into military operations (as well as in the civilian sphere) the U.S. must balance its closely held technological advancements that provide it with a military edge, with ensuring that partnerships and allies can also enjoy a piece of the pie.  The Air Force has asserted in a report recently that “[t]he technological advantage the Air Force has maintained since its inception was not predestined.  It was the result of a strategic choice to explore and mature new technologies balanced with an understanding that military problems will never have final or universal solutions.”  Many wish that these solutions were shared with a larger partner base.