A New Era In Global Drone Sales?

The U.S. plans to change its policy stance on the Cold War-era 33-year-old Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) Treaty with the hopes of further expanding U.S. drone sales around the world, reports Al Jazeera news. Under the new proposed changes the United States would be able to supply armed drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper to countries such as Jordan and the U.A.E. which were previously unable to purchase them under the old MTCR guidelines. 

Reuters reports the news came from three defence industry executives and a defence official. All declined to be named. The White House and State Department has declined to comment. The Pentagon declined to comment on whether or not changes were pending to the MTCR, but Heidi Grant, the Pentagon’s Director of Defence Technology Security Administration expressed a desire to see U.S. drone technology break into other markets. 

The unnamed U.S. defence official and industry executives told Reuters ‘‘the [U.S.] 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.’’

Under current MTCR guidelines in use by the State Department only the United Kingdom, France, and Australia have been able to purchase large drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper from U.S. defence contractors, the Hill reports. A number of states such as Saudi Arabia, U.A.E. and Jordan are reported to be first in line for new drone sales once the changes are finalized according to Reuters News Agency.

The move comes as a part of a wider push by the Trump administration to expand U.S. arms sales to a wider market. Reuters reports the United States has in recent months overhauled a large number of arms export regulations, including withdrawing from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty. The U.S. is hoping to allow defence contractors such as Northrop Grumman and General Atomics to break into new markets which were previously unavailable under the MTCR.

Reuters reports these markets have previously been dominated by the likes of China and Israel, who are not signatories to the MTCR. These countries, along with other newcomers to the drone market such as Turkey have managed to undercut U.S. prices and monopolize corners of the defence market the U.S. was unwilling to touch. Teal Group, a market research firm, estimates that ‘‘annual sales, research and development will rise from $15.8bn in 2020 to nearly $20bn by 2029.’’

The Trump Administration’s willingness to push U.S. defence contractors into these new markets should be carefully considered by more than just financial merits. Countless administrations from both sides of the aisle have enacted restrictions and regulations on these markets for reasons such as human rights concerns to worries that U.S. defence technology will be copied or undermined by potentially adversarial states such as China and Iran.

Human rights advocates have expressed concern that the new policy could further destabilize regions such as the Middle East and South Asia, where the U.S. would have no control over drone technology after the purchases are made. Rachel Stohl, a weapons proliferation analyst at the Stimson Centre in Washington sums it up perfectly when she stated ‘‘once they leave [U.S.] control, we lose our ability to influence how and where they are used.’’ Without proper foresight there may come a day soon when U.S. troops face U.S. drones on the battlefield. Will the financial gains still prove worth it then?

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