Exercising Restraint? the New U.S. Rules for Drone Transfers

By Stohl, Rachel | Arms Control Today, May 2015 | Go to article overview

Exercising Restraint? the New U.S. Rules for Drone Transfers


Stohl, Rachel, Arms Control Today


On February 5, Representative Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) urged the Obama administration to reverse its decision to deny a Jordanian request for unarmed Predator XP drones to fight the Islamic State.

Until the release of Hunter's letter, the denial of the proposed sale had not been made public. The decision on the Jordanian request reflects the United States' close hold on drone technology and the lack of transparency for decisions on drone exports. Although Hunter and others who supported the Jordan deal and other drone exports correctly reference the need of allies to acquire technology and weapons to join the U.S. fight against potential threats, the United States has placed extensive limits on drone exports.

These limits have often been imposed without transparent policy guidance. The U.S. government recently revised its policy, but the policy remains classified. On February 17, however, the Department of State released an unclassified summary of the new policy, providing some clarity on its drone transfer decisions.1

The revision of the U.S. export policy for unmanned aerial systems, as drones are formally known, had been highly anticipated by the defense industry and U.S. allies. U.S. industry in particular has been increasingly concerned that the United States has fallen behind in the fast-growing global drone market as more countries step up their indigenous development of the unmanned systems.

The global drone market is set to double in the next decade, according to Teal Group Corp., increasing from $6.4 billion to $11.5 billion as more countries gain interest in developing and acquiring military drones. U.S. industry worries that if the United States does not participate in global drone sales, it will further diminish the U.S. position in the global drone market and further hinder U.S. industry innovation. U.S. industry is unlikely to invest in research and development for new drone systems if U.S. regulations are too restrictive and burdensome.2

The new drone export policy is part of a broader U.S. policy review of U.S. drone use and transfer and is the culmination of years of work. In May 2013, President Barack Obama gave a speech at the National Defense University highlighting the importance of a transparent and accountable U.S. drone policy. In a follow-up speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point a year later, Obama did little to expand on his vision of what an accountable and transparent policy would look like. The February release is the first codification of Obama's promised expansion of transparency. The new policy was developed in response to Obama's call for clarity, but also because of increasing demand for drones from close allies and nongovernmental end users around the world.

The unclassified summary describes the policy's tenets and approach. Drone exports are governed, as are all U.S. defense exports, by a variety of laws, regulations, and policies including the Arms Export Control Act, the Foreign Assistance Act, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, the Export Administration Regulations (for commercial drones), and the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy.

Much of the policy guidance governing drone exports is clarified in Presidential Policy Directive 27 (PPD-27), which was issued in January 2014 and updated the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy.3 The policy states the goals of U.S. policy on conventional arms transfers, outlines the process and criteria that guide U.S. arms transfer decisions, clarifies the ways in which U.S. policy on conventional arms transfers supports arms control and arms transfer restraint, and explains how the United States supports responsible arms transfers around the globe. The policy is consistent with long-standing U.S. law (the Arms Export Control Act and Foreign Assistance Act, among others), regulatory regimes, and internal practices. The policy reflects existing U.S. legal authorities and international obligations. …

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