Trump plans to sidestep another arms pact to sell more US drones

WION Web Team
New York, New York, United States of AmericaUpdated: Jun 12, 2020, 04:16 PM IST


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Sidestepping the accord would allow US defence contractors General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc and Northrop Grumman Corp to break into new markets currently dominated by less sophisticated offerings from China and Israel, which do not participate in the MTCR.

The Trump administration aims to reinterpret a Cold War-era arms agreement between 34 nations with the goal of allowing US defence contractors to sell more American-made drones to a wide array of nations.

The policy change, which has not been previously reported, could open up sales of armed US drones to less stable governments such as Jordan and the United Arab Emirates that in the past have been forbidden from buying them under the 33-year-old Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), said the US official, a former US official and one of the executives. It could also undermine longstanding MTCR compliance from countries such as Russia, said the US official, who has direct knowledge of the policy shift.

Reinterpreting the MTCR is part of a broader Trump administration effort to sell more weapons overseas. It has overhauled a broad range of arms export regulations and removed the US from international arms treaties including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty.

Sidestepping the accord would allow US defence contractors General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc and Northrop Grumman Corp to break into new markets currently dominated by less sophisticated offerings from China and Israel, which do not participate in the MTCR.

It's being said the US military is eager to see drone sales expanded to more countries. Such sales would bolster the militaries of allies and replace drones sales from other nations.

The drones would help allies fight terrorism, establish border control and generally help stop threats before they reach the United States.

US agencies including the departments of Commerce, Energy, Justice and Homeland Security agreed to the change in May, and the State Department is expected to approve the first drone sales under the new interpretation as soon as this summer, said the US official and industry executives.

The change is scheduled for a review by the White House National Security Council at its June 16 meeting, said one of the executives and a former US official with knowledge of the internal policy discussions. The council is expected to support the policy change and discuss a possible White House announcement.

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

Expanded sales of armed drones could increase global conflicts, said Rachel Stohl, a weapons expert at the Stimson Center in Washington, a think tank focused on security issues that opposes weapons proliferation.

Under the State Department's current interpretation of the MTCR, all sales of large drones are subject to what is known as a "strong presumption of denial," which has made approvals rare. But the high bar to get a deal greenlighted will be removed, signaling to previously forbidden customers that their orders have much better chance of approval, according to the official, the former official and one of the defense executives.

Until now, only England, France and Australia have been allowed to buy large, armed drones from US manufacturers, according to data collected by The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York state.

The US official and the former official said any country where US forces are operating drones in the counterterrorism fight, such as Kuwait, could be a potential customer for lethal drones

US drone manufacturers, face growing competition overseas especially from Chinese and Israeli rivals who have far fewer rules limiting sales.The defense contractors are vying for a larger share of the global military drone market, which the Teal Group, a market research firm, forecast annual sales, research and development will rise from $15.8 billion in 2020 to nearly $20 billion by 2029.

Bart Roper, Senior Vice President for Strategic Development at General Atomics, said the firm has been limited under current policy and that a liberalization of the rules could result in "hundreds" of new sales. Roper, who did not confirm the policy change, said there is strong interest from Middle East and Southeast Asian customers that have been forced to purchase aircraft from the Chinese because of a lack of US alternatives.

A Northrop Grumman spokesman added that increased drone exports would lead to closer work on the technology with allies, helping keep US drones state-of-the-art.


The MTCR agreement -- originally signed in 1987 by the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Britain -- focusses on stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The pact has been credited with slowing or stopping missile programs in countries such as Egypt, Argentina and Iraq. 

The MTCR policy shift has been under consideration by the Trump administration since 2017, but has been delayed several times as the United States has grappled with objections within the government and from other nations in the agreement.

The MTCR currently classifies such drones as cruise missiles - and therefore subject to high export restrictions - because of the technical specifications for unpiloted aircraft in the 1987 pact. Under the reinterpretation, the United States will treat these drones as if they belong in a lower category that falls outside MTCR jurisdiction.

(with inputs from Reuters)