The Great Drone Contradiction

The United States has a new policy on unmanned aircraft systems. But the rest of the world may not like it -- and for good reason.


The State Department has released a new policy on military drone exports, thereby settling what had been an exhaustive interagency review that was prompted primarily by drone manufacturers seeking clarity about what countries they could export to. This policy was released separately and 13 months after Presidential Policy Directive 27, U.S. Conventional Arms Transfer Policy, because the Obama administration perceives drones as a distinctive weapons system. Unlike other weapons platforms, drones persist for far longer durations, sometimes up to 23 hours, and can fly over targets without refueling, which allows for a continuous monitoring of a situation. Their responsiveness, measured in seconds, when time-sensitive targets appear in an operator’s view is unmatched, potentially reducing harm to noncombatants. Finally, these unmanned platforms do not put human pilots or ground forces at risk.

And it’s the distinctiveness of the armed drones that explains why this review took over two years, and bridges disagreements between two camps that emerged before Obama even came into office. The first camp contended that the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which provides principles to limit the proliferation of ballistic missiles and other unmanned delivery systems that could be used for chemical, biological, and nuclear attacks, was the correct framework for guiding armed drone exports. These nonproliferation officials and staffers, primarily in the State Department, claimed that as flawed and outdated as the 1987 MTCR is, it was an essential, norm-setting cornerstone of the nonproliferation regime. Going beyond the MTCR guidelines that mandate a “strong presumption of denial” for transferring military drones would weaken not just the MTCR, but the nonproliferation regime more broadly.

The second camp, consisting largely of Pentagon officials and staffers, championed expanded drone sales in an effort to build partnership capacity among U.S. allies and partners. The theory: Providing this advanced capability would better cement bilateral ties with countries that have mutual treaty obligations, or presumably shared security interests. Moreover, this camp claimed that many countries wanted to reaffirm their relationships with the United States as much as they wanted military drones themselves.

For instance, Turkey has requested armed drones from the United States for several years, but the administration remained divided on whether to authorize the sale. While some saw utility in enhancing the capabilities of an ally engaged in its own war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), others feared introducing a new lethal weapons system to an unstable region, and delivering it into the hands of a government that has used indiscriminate force against the PKK — in this case, with U.S. supplied F-16s.

The Obama administration’s record in restraining the proliferation of military drones has been admirable to date, with denial of sales to countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. While the new policy will make exports to such countries unlikely, it is more closely aligned with the build-partnership-capacity camp than those concerned about nonproliferation principles. Most notably, while claiming that it “maintains the United States’ long-standing commitments” under the MTCR (to deny transfers), it introduces the “rare occasions” justification for exports. Over the course of years of conversations with administration officials, this carve-out has never been mentioned. Yet, now it is on the books to allow potential transfers that had previously been prohibited.

The new policy was actually preempted by the Feb. 8 announcement that the State Department had approved the sale of four armed-capable MQ-9 Reapers, the most advanced unclassified military drone in the U.S. arsenal, to the Netherlands. The United States had previously only sold armed-capable systems to its closest allies — the United Kingdom in February 2007, and France in August 2013. The Netherlands is an ally and coalition partner in U.S.-led military operations, with a strong record of upholding international human rights norms, so this was a reasonable decision for the Obama administration. But, more importantly, the announcement indicates that earlier, strong opposition from democratic senators, in particular Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), to military drone exports has diminished. As a foreign military sale to a NATO member state, congressional members have 15 days to attempt to pass legislation to block or modify this sale. The fact that nobody on Capitol Hill has publicly objected to the Netherlands sale suggests it will go through and establish a precedent.

It is impossible to ascertain what impact this policy will have as the state of global military drone programs and their proliferation is marked by a lack of clarity. Governments routinely announce plans for advanced military drone programs, but their deadlines are almost never met. For example, the U.K. and France have been jointly developing an armed drone since 2010, but have faced repeated delays, and it is now scheduled to be operational by 2030 — we’ll see. Other states roll out purportedly impressive and ominously named drones on a regular basis, such as China’s Wing Loong or Iran’s Raad or “suicide drone,” but they are never demonstrably used in combat. Meanwhile, countries such as the United States and China pursue highly secretive advanced drones, about which we know very little. Anybody who claims to either know what countries possess which drone capabilities, or what the future rate of drone proliferation will be, is lying to you.

Though the media often reports that there are seemingly limitless new military drone programs and a widespread proliferation of such systems, it is important to bear in mind that drones will make up a relatively small portion of global defense spending. Over the next 10 years, the global military drone market is expected be worth an average of $7.27 billion per year, according to Forecast International, in a world where military spending is around $1.5 trillion. In other words, less than .5 percent of expected future global defense spending will be committed to buying or developing military drones. That is hardly a game changer, and not the sort of needed perspective reflected in this policy or the media reports based upon it.

The policy also acknowledges that the United States is the lead actor in developing and using military drones, and the most reliable source of combat-ready drones. Of course, the United States is also the number one arms dealer in the world, including to those countries deemed the least democratic, according to the State Department’s just released World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers report. Subsequently, it has a unique opportunity and responsibility to not only set precedents for the use of armed drones, but to determine which countries might acquire these systems and hold them accountable for their use.

What is unfortunate about the new policy is the principles that it claims countries must follow before the United States will authorize the transfer of military drones.

  • “Recipients are to use these systems in accordance with international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, as applicable;
  • Armed and other advanced [unmanned aircraft systems] UAS are to be used in operations involving the use of force only when there is a lawful basis for use of force under international law, such as national self-defense;
  • Recipients are not to use military UAS to conduct unlawful surveillance or use unlawful force against their domestic populations; and
  • As appropriate, recipients shall provide UAS operators technical and doctrinal training on the use of these systems to reduce the risk of unintended injury or damage.”

Even analysts less skeptical than me would ask if the United States itself adheres to these principles. Most notably, the United States does not say when international humanitarian law and/or international human rights law applies to which of its drone strikes. Christof Heyns, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, suggested in his 2013 report that countries should work collectively to determine how international law applies to the use of drones, and that armed drone states that invoke the right to self-defense — as the United States does — should submit a report to the Security Council for each country in which they use force. The United States has not yet done either, nor has it addressed outstanding U.N. queries about its targeted killings for over a dozen years.

It is hard to see how attacking anonymous, suspected low-level militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan, or providing closer support for the militaries of Pakistan or Yemen, meets these new principles. Based on the new policy, it would be difficult to justify selling military drones to the United States itself, given that the Obama administration has never provided the transparency or clarity to know if it is adhering to the principles that it now asks of potential recipient countries.

Indeed, much like purported reforms to U.S. drone strike policies in May 2013 — most of which were not implemented — this policy released today is only meaningful in its interpretation of “rare occasions,” and the degree to which it holds recipient countries accountable in adhering to the principles. This later point is especially important given that virtually wherever military drones are deployed, they are used for missions far beyond what they were initially intended. As Sarah Kreps and I noted in our study Limiting Armed Drone Proliferation, the Obama administration has a shrinking opportunity to play a significant role in shaping rules of the road for the use of armed drones and for limiting their proliferation. Today’s policy is one small milestone in the growth and spread of this lethal technology, with its eventual impact wholly dependent on whether this and future administrations actually live up to the principles that it espouses.

Andrew Lee/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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