Fri, Oct 13, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Game of Drones: US poised to relax rules to boost exports

Remote-controlled aircraft have become a centerpiece of counterterrorism strategy, and US manufacturers are pushing Washington to act to ease domestic and international restrictions so that they can compete against rivals in China, Israel and elsewhere for military sales

By Matt Spetalnick and Mike Stone  /  Reuters, WASHINGTON

Illustration: Mountain People

US President Donald Trump’s administration is nearing completion of new “Buy American” rules to make it easier to sell US-made military drones overseas and compete against fast-growing Chinese and Israeli rivals, senior US officials said.

While 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 autonomous aircraft, US government and industry sources said.

The US administration is pressing ahead with its domestic revamp of drone export policy under heavy pressure from US 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 US presidential policy decree, the administration officials said 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 is 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,” one senior US official said.

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.

However, deliberations have been more complicated 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 are 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, the industry source said.

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.”

Former US 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.

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