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The US Is Revising Its Drone Export Policy. What Does That Mean for East Asia?

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The US Is Revising Its Drone Export Policy. What Does That Mean for East Asia?

The Trump administration may be looking to regain dominance of the drone export market.

The US Is Revising Its Drone Export Policy. What Does That Mean for East Asia?
Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt

In recent months, the Trump administration has signaled its intentions to loosen restrictions on foreign arms sales. Such changes in policy would fit within an established pattern of Trump’s presidency: From (intended) arms sales to Saudi Arabia to South Korea and Japan, Trump has championed the sales of arms to foreign actors of various stripe. In his mantra, “business is business.” Increased foreign arms sales are supported by previous trade aspirations and fall in line with his campaign promises that U.S. allies would share a larger part of the military-financial burden of partnerships. As often with Trump’s statements, it remains to be seen to which extent these words hold value or if they simply, as too often happens, remain bluster. Nonetheless, the Trump administration will likely experience few, if any, significant barriers in its efforts to loosen export controls and seek to increase the sales of military hardware to foreign actors, irrespective of their political orientation as well as domestic and foreign policies.

Among the systems and export controls under review are reportedly unmanned systems. In a news scoop earlier last year, Reuters wrote that the Trump administration seeks to (further) reverse its drone export control policy. Under previous administrations, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, sales and exports of U.S. drones – armed and unarmed – were relatively restricted: only close allies such as the United Kingdom, Japan, and South Korea were on the sell-to list. In 2015, the Obama government sought to revise some of the United States’ existing policies, yet the U.S. arms industry voiced concern that despite few revisions, controls in place were too restrictive. That encumbered the U.S. arms industry, reducing its capacity to compete on the global market when it came to drone sales.

Indeed, other nations, beyond the close U.S. allies mentioned above, experienced greater difficulty in acquiring U.S.-produced armed drones. Only recently, India was able to buy drones for maritime purposes. However, the UAE and Jordan have found it difficult to acquire U.S. drones due to existing restrictions approved by the Obama government. Restrictions in place during the previous administration could dissolve, opening the road to increased sales and exports to those countries even if there are some conditions attached.

Beyond the financial dimension, other motivations can be seen for updating the existing framework. Foremost, the framework currently in place is outdated – developed and implemented 15 years ago when the United States was a leader in drone development and competition was relatively limited. But a lot has changed over the past decade-and-a-half in the international environment and competition to procure drone export contracts has increased rather significantly. A 2017 report by the Center for New American Security illustrated exactly this. In it, the authors highlighted the outdated nature of U.S. drone export policies and how competitors have not only caught up but also set the United States back in the global drone market.

In the wake of these restrictions, other states, notably China and Israel, have filled the demand for armed drones. The proliferation of Chinese drones is a relatively known fact these days. China’s various drone types are in high demand among Middle Eastern states, many of which carry rather tarnished human rights records. As such, the United States has lost its dominant position in the global drone market and the decision by the Trump administration to ease restrictions can be seen as an effort to revert its present export trajectory.

Increased drone sales and exports, however raises some concern. One such problem resides in the area of their application as instruments in anti-terror operations. Increasingly drones are becoming the go-to global policy tool against terrorists and insurgents; in some cases, their use against organized criminals has been considered. Drone strikes worldwide are on the rise and the list of nations conducting drone strikes against terrorists (or suspected terrorists) has expanded considerably since the early years of drone strikes. In the Asia-Pacific, the use of drones for extrajudicial killings has yet to become the norm, with only a few nations having conducted drone strikes inside their own borders. For reasons discussed in our prior article, this practice seems unlikely to take hold in the region.

However, as Sarah Kreps and Micah Zenko outlined in a Foreign Affairs article in 2014, the proliferation of drones increases the risk of armed conflict and could fuel an arms race. With actors across the Asia-Pacific increasing their defense budgets and with heightened tensions over territory and resources, the risk exists that other nations (i.e., North Korea and China) could seek to counter U.S. efforts in the drone export field. Given a handful of volatile situations in the Asia Pacific region, such a scenario seems not entirely unlikely.

In our prior articles on this website, we outlined how unmanned systems could become the non-human equivalent of Russia’s “little green men.” Kreps and Zenko discussed the possibility of this in their article. To date, such a scenario involving the use of drones for political incursions has only occurred once: China flew an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) into Japanese airspace over the East China Sea. The scenario not been repeated since. If the United States were to re-ignite its drone export operations, notably to states willing to take risks in their respective conflicts, the possibility that Reapers and Predators would be used for offensive political purposes would likely increase, feeding into the an arms race. A scenario in which, for example, the Philippines employs U.S. (armed) UAVs to contest China’s air dominance over the South China Sea is not entirely unlikely.

The drone market has proven to be a lucrative business and one that the United States has done well in. Having observed the earning potential in the realm of drone exports, China entered the market with a bang and quickly soared to an impressive position in drone manufacturing and sales. Seeing its regional and global market position challenged, the Chinese defense industry could opt to market its drones more aggressively and at even lower prices than they have been sold in the past. Such a counterreaction could fuel UAV export competition and subsequently serve as the ideal means for a regional unmanned arms race developing.

Tobias Burgers is a doctoral candidate at the Ott-Suhr-Institute (Free University of Berlin) where he researches the rise and use of cyber and robotic systems in security relations, and the future of military conflict.

Scott N. Romaniuk is a Ph.D. candidate in International Studies (University of Trento). His research focuses on asymmetric warfare, counterterrorism, international security, and the use of force.