The market for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) has exploded over the last decade in both the civilian and military sectors, with drones becoming everyday household objects and favored weapons of war. But the White House’s recent policy relaxation aimed at imposing American UAV export dominance is misguided and risky. Despite the Trump administration’s suggestion that the move is intended to reflect changing market dynamics, the effort is, in effect, a regulatory race to the bottom. To this end, any future administration, Biden, Trump, or otherwise, should prioritize a reversal of this reckless deregulation.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the number of civilian drones heavier than 250 grams (the weight you’re required to register your drone at) in the United States alone reached 1.5 million in 2020, with 171,000 certified drone operators. The European Investment Bank projects the global number of drones to reach 35 million by 2022. In 2015, Goldman Sachs estimated that the global market for drones will reach $100 billion by 2020, with 70% stemming from the military application of UAVs.
In total, 102 countries have active military drone programs, and although unarmed surveillance drones make up 95% of military UAVs, armed forces all over the world are making a large push for more deadly options. 40 countries possess attack capable UAVs and 29 countries other than the United States are developing their own domestic armed drones. The global drone fleet is not only proliferating in number but also increasing in lethality.
The American use of drones has also expanded substantially in the last decade and our use of them has not helped curtail their proliferation. The American drone war in Pakistan lost the support of many local pro-Western moderates while also potentially increasing radicalism and anti-Americanism in the country. The use of UAVs to kill the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq also raises further debate and controversy about their deployments against state actors.
Even more troubling, the United States is no longer alone in the skies. In the last five years, Nigeria, Boko Haram, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, ISIS, the Houthis, and Pakistan have begun to use drones. The proliferation has spurred further concerns about the possibility that it will be easier for human rights abusers to purchase American drones to use against their own people. Furthermore, there are already documented incidents of UAVs being deployed against American troops. Why then, amidst an expanding array of national security threats, is the US actively promoting the proliferation of these dangerous weapons? Well, the money primarily.
One of the largest catalysts for expanding US drone sales has been China and Israel’s push to corner the international military drone market. Not only is China less concerned about the proliferation of armed UAVs, but it is also able to sell at far lower prices than the United States does. For example, the CH-4 can sell for a mere 75% of the cost of an American MQ-9 Reaper. China is rapidly expanding its drone exports as well, selling to 14 identified countries primarily in Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Most recently, however, China sold its first drones to Serbia, marking its entry into the European drone market.
Like nearly every other debate about arms control, the leading argument for expanding drone exports ends up boiling down to “if we don’t do it, others will.”
In contrast, the United States’ has only sold armed drones to the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Until now, the primary reason why the United States has maintained a “strong presumption of denial” of its current UAV arsenal was its commitment to the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The arms regime restricts its members from exporting platforms that can carry payloads of 500kg over a range of at least 300km. At the time of its signing, UAVs were an undeveloped area of weaponry and were grouped in with ballistic missiles. The United States is also party to the Wassenaar Arrangement which applies guidelines, elements, and procedures to increase transparency in the transfer of weapons including UAVs. While the MTCR and Wassenaar Arrangement are voluntary agreements, the United States has laws that sanction those who break MTCR rules and applies the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and Export Administration Regulations (EAR) to UAV exports.
The United States has been attempting to expand its drone exports since the end of the Obama Presidency. In 2015, the State Department announced its expansion of foreign military sales (FMS) of UAVs to “carefully selected countries” particularly in the Middle East. However, the administration also clarified the framework that would be required to approve UAV sales and affirmed commitment to the MTCR. In 2018, the Trump Administration relaxed regulations further after a Chinese bid beat out General Atomics for a UAV sale to the UAE. The 2018 changes included allowing UAV sales through the DCS process and a reclassification of laser-designator equipped drones that means they are no longer considered “armed.” Because any changes to the MTCR must be approved by consensus, the United States has pursued a unilateral reinterpretation of a section of the MTCR as the remaining options. That reinterpretation was announced July 24, meaning the US has lowered the threshold of justification required to export certain armed unmanned systems.
Though the administration and defense contractors have argued that commitments to the MTCR uniquely constrain Washington’s strategic edge, the argument has a catch. While China and Israel are not MTCR parties, both have agreed to abide by MTCR rules and the drones that they export fall within the parameters of the MTCR. For example, Israel exports MTCR-compliant drones, China’s drones sales (with 2 exceptions that it no longer exports) fall under the MTCR’s Category I. Even Turkey, an MTCR member, built its Bayraktar UAV specifically to fall in the MTCR’s Category II to allow for easier foreign export. The United States is indeed constrained by the MTCR, but as are others who abide by its stipulations. Therefore, any reinterpretation of the MTCR to separate drones in order to increase America’s drone exports risks triggering a larger UAV arms race. Article after article has pointed out that America’s primary competitors are not MTCR members while ignoring the fact that other state actors are abiding by the agreement’s provisions. An American reinterpretation of the MTCR opens the gates for China and Israel to produce and sell more powerful and deadlier unmanned systems.
Like nearly every other debate about arms control, the leading argument for expanding drone exports ends up boiling down to “if we don’t do it, others will.” Proponents will argue about interoperability and damaging our allies’ trust by refusing to export UAVs, but at the end of the day, the arguments are about boxing out other possible vendors. Though concerns about the rising presence of peer competitors in the UAV space and the concerns of interoperability are not unwarranted, the race-to-the-bottom logic does not ensure the United States technological supremacy and will instead spark a far larger arms race than currently exists.
There is, of course, more than just geopolitical competition to consider. US drones have accidentally bombed wedding processions and civilians all while obscuring real death counts and causing lasting trauma. If the United States decides to proliferate drones outside of close NATO allies and unleashes an international drone race, we risk putting more innocent people in harm’s way.
Instead, the United States should do what it can to prevent drones from becoming the weapon of first resort. It may seem hypocritical to backtrack after nearly two decades of expanding drone led operations, but the United States has an opportunity to capitalize on the growing concern about UAVs. Unilateral reinterpretations of international agreements or flagrant violations will only provide short term benefits at the cost of any chance of creating long term disarmament norms. A new administration would be smart to recognize the harms of unilateral reinterpretations of arms control agreements and bring the United States back into compliance with its arms control partners.
The United States is wracked by problems that pervade its militarized approach to foreign policy, but the debate about drones cannot remain focused solely on market share and money. We must oppose the proliferation of drones by working to limit their sales and usage, not join in on the arms race to make a quick buck.
Connor Akiyama is a researcher for the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor.