Trump to boost exports of lethal drones to more US allies

WASHINGTON, March 20 (Reuters) - President Donald Trump will soon make it easier to export some types of lethal U.S.-made drones to potentially dozens more allies and partners, according to people familiar with the plan. Trump is expected to ease rules for such foreign sales under a long-delayed new policy on unmanned military aircraft due to be rolled out as early as this month, the first phase of a broader overhaul of arms export regulations.

U.S. drone manufacturers, facing growing competition overseas especially from Chinese and Israeli rivals who often sell under lighter restrictions, have lobbied hard for the rule changes.

The White House is expected to tout the move as part of Trump's "Buy American" initiative to create jobs and reduce the U.S. trade deficit. Human rights and arms control advocates, however, warn it risks fueling violence and instability in regions such as the Middle East and South Asia.

An announcement of the new policy has been held up for months amid deliberations on how far to go in unleashing drones exports. That delay prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to write to Trump's national security adviser H.R. McMaster to press him to expedite the policy shift to avoid losing out on sales to certain countries, an industry source and two U.S officials said.

A key thrust of the policy will be to lower barriers to sales of smaller hunter-killer drones that carry fewer missiles and travel shorter distances than larger models such as the iconic Predator drone, the sources said. Export regulations will also be eased for surveillance drones of all sizes, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Even though Trump will stop short of completely opening up sales of top-of-the-line lethal drones, it will mark a major step toward overcoming a long-standing U.S. taboo against selling armed drones to countries other than a handful of Washington's most trusted allies. Military drones have changed the face of modern warfare, with U.S. models in greatest demand.

Trump's aides had initially focused mostly on devising ways to boost sales of "eye in the sky" drones used for tracking and targeting. But after a more than year-long review, they have crafted a plan that will reinterpret some rules to allow for more armed drone sales overseas.

A list of potential buyers being given fast-track treatment is expected to expand to include more NATO members, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf partners as well as treaty allies such as Japan and South Korea, the people familiar with the plan said.

RELATED: A look at remarkable military photos

19 PHOTOS
The best US military photos from 2016
See Gallery
The best US military photos from 2016

An Air Force F-22 Raptor flies over the Arabian Sea to support Operation Inherent Resolve, January 27, 2016.

(Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook)

Marine Corps Sgt. Josh Greathouse scans the area during a perimeter patrol in Taqaddum, Iraq, March 21, 2016. Greathouse is a team leader assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Crisis Response, for US Central Command.

(Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Rick Hurtado)

Navy Seaman Fabian Soltero looks through shipboard binoculars aboard the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Atlantic Ocean, March 25, 2016.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Taylor L. Jackson)

USS Bulkeley receives fuel and cargo from dry cargo/ammunition ship USNS Medgar Evers during a replenishment at sea in the Persian Gulf, February 25, 2016. The guided-missile destroyer was supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, maritime security operations, and theater security cooperation efforts in the US 5th Fleet area of operations.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael J. Lieberknec)

Navy Seaman Brice Scraper, top, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Alex Miller verify the serial number of a training missile on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the Philippine Sea, October 5, 2016. The Reagan was supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Burke)

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Brianna Caballero maneuvers a harbor patrol boat to load it onto a trailer for maintenance on Naval Support Activity Bahrain, January 6, 2016.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Gary Granger Jr.)

Soldiers offload equipment and supplies from a CH-47F Chinook helicopter after landing on Kahiltna Glacier in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska, April 24, 2016. At 17,400 feet, Mount Foraker towers above.Air Force Maj. Steve Briones and 1st Lt. Andrew Kim fly a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft over Turkey, January 6, 2016. Coalition forces fly daily missions to support Operation Inherent Resolve.Members of the visit, board, search, and seizure team for the guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez operate a rigid-hull inflatable boat in the Gulf of Aden, April 26, 2016. The Gonzalez was supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the US 5th Fleet area of operations.

(Army photo by John Pennell)

Air Force Maj. Steve Briones and 1st Lt. Andrew Kim fly a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft over Turkey, January 6, 2016. Coalition forces fly daily missions to support Operation Inherent Resolve.Members of the visit, board, search, and seizure team for the guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez operate a rigid-hull inflatable boat in the Gulf of Aden, April 26, 2016. The Gonzalez was supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the US 5th Fleet area of operations.

(Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook)

Members of the visit, board, search, and seizure team for the guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez operate a rigid-hull inflatable boat in the Gulf of Aden, April 26, 2016. The Gonzalez was supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the US 5th Fleet area of operations.Air Force Maj. Steve Briones and 1st Lt. Andrew Kim fly a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft over Turkey, January 6, 2016. Coalition forces fly daily missions to support Operation Inherent Resolve.Soldiers offload equipment and supplies from a CH-47F Chinook helicopter after landing on Kahiltna Glacier in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska, April 24, 2016. At 17,400 feet, Mount Foraker towers above.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Pasquale Sena)

Sailors move a T-45C Goshawk aircraft on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Atlantic Ocean, February 5, 2016. The Eisenhower was preparing for inspections and conducting carrier qualifications.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Anderson W. Branch)

The guided-missile destroyer USS Carney breaks away from the fleet-replenishment oiler USNS Big Horn after a replenishment at sea in the Mediterranean Sea, August 14, 2016. The Carney was patrolling in the US 6th Fleet area of responsibility to support US national-security interests in Europe.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Weston Jones)

A Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey aircraft prepares for takeoff from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer in the Pacific Ocean, August 26, 2016.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael T. Eckelbecker)

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Kristen Neufeld performs maintenance on a Mark 38-25 mm machine gun aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson at its home port in San Diego, August 18, 2016.

(Navy photo by Seaman Theo Shively)

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Brian Evans repairs an antenna system during a replenishment at sea involving the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey, and the Military Sealift Command combat support ship USNS Arctic in the Persian Gulf, September 2, 2016.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan T. Beard)

Sailors aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Ross move ropes during a sea-and-anchor detail near Aksav, Turkey, January 7, 2016. The Ross was conducting a routine patrol in the US 6th Fleet area of operations to support US national-security interests in Europe.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin Stumberg)

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Trevor Ellam signals to the fleet-replenishment oiler USNS Laramie from aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Stout during a replenishment at sea in the Persian Gulf, October 14, 2016. Ellam is a boatswain’s mate. The Stout was supporting security efforts in the US 5th Fleet area of operations.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Bill Dodge)

Marines depart a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter aboard the amphibious-assault ship USS Makin Island in the Pacific Ocean, October 22, 2016. The Makin Island was supporting the Navy’s maritime strategy in the US 3rd Fleet area of responsibility. The helicopter is assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 163.

(Navy photo by Seaman Devin M. Langer)

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Fulks motions to crew members on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in the Philippine Sea, February 24, 2016. The Stennis provides a ready force to support security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

(Navy photo by Seaman Cole C. Pielop)

The guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen patrols the eastern Pacific Ocean, March 10, 2016. The Lassen was supporting Operation Martillo with the US Coast Guard and partner nations within the US 4th Fleet area of responsibility.

(Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Huey D. Younger Jr.)

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Also likely to be in the favored group would be key partners such as India, Singapore and Australia as well as many of the 35 signatories to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an international agreement that sets rules for export of missiles and related weaponry. The only sales of armed U.S. drones in recent years have been to Britain and Italy.

"We're getting outplayed all over the world," a U.S. official told Reuters. "Why can our competitors sell to our own allies the equipment they are clamoring to buy from us? This policy is meant to turn that around."

A Trump administration official, responding to a request for comment on the story, said the U.S. government is seeking to "minimize the self-inflicted bureaucratic and administrative hurdles to U.S. competitiveness in the global aerospace markets."

The official insisted, however, that any sales of armed drones would be in accordance with U.S. law and require that buyers adhere to international standards.

There was no immediate comment from the White House or Pentagon on the Mattis message to McMaster.

CHEAPER BUT STILL DEADLY

Two potential beneficiaries of the rule changes, Textron and Kratos Defense & Security Solutions Inc, currently market smaller armed drones internationally, though U.S. regulations have apparently restrained them from securing sales so far.

Industry sources say other manufacturers are considering expanding their product lines.

The overall loosening of drone export rules would also help producers such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and Lockheed Martin, two industry sources said.

Company officials declined to comment ahead of the policy unveiling.

The smaller drones that meet the new export guidelines are expected to be much cheaper than high-end models such as the Predator and Reaper, both made by General Atomics, which cost up to $17 million apiece according to reports.

While they are less destructive than the larger drones, their firepower can destroy vehicles, small structures and armed positions.

U.S. officials contend that a more export-friendly approach will not only help meet Trump's 2016 campaign promise to bolster America's "defense industrial base" but also get foreign partners to take on more of their own defense costs.

An increase in drones sales "could put these weapons in the hands of governments that act irresponsibly with their neighbors and against their own populations," warned Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow with the Arms Control Association, a non-partisan Washington-based organization focused on global weapons proliferation threats.

Trump's predecessor, President Barack Obama, introduced revised rules in 2015 aimed at increasing military drone exports. But U.S. manufacturers complained they were still too restrictive.

U.S. drone makers are vying for a larger share of the global military drone market, which the Teal Group, a market research firm, has forecast will rise from $2.8 billion in sales in 2016 to $9.4 billion in 2025.

The new policy is expected to be unveiled in coming weeks, people close to the matter said, though they also cautioned that the exact timing remains in flux.

Among the changes will be a more lenient application by the U.S. government of an arms export principle known as "presumption of denial." This has impeded many drone deals by automatically denying approval unless a compelling security reason is given together with strict buyer agreements to use the weapons in accordance with international law.

One U.S. official said the new policy would "change our calculus" by easing those restrictions on whether to allow any given sale.

The MTCR – a 1987 missile-control pact signed by the United States and 34 other countries – will still require strict export controls on Predator-type drones, which it classifies as Category 1, those with a payload of over 1,100 pounds (500 kg).

However, the Trump administration is seeking to renegotiate the MTCR accord to eventually make it easier to export the larger armed drones. (Reporting By Matt Spetalnick and Mike Stone Editing by Chris Sanders and Ross Colvin)

Read Full Story