U.S. forces are at increasing risk as China and other nations sell more armed drones to anyone with the money to pay for them, and restrictive U.S. export policies may be making the situation worse, says a new report delivered to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
The RAND Corp. report says that drones produced by unfriendly nations will pose a “growing threat to U.S. and allied military operations,” in the near future, as China, Russia, and Iran recognize the power of unmanned platforms, making it certain that in future conflicts, “U.S. forces will have to cope with adversaries equipped with different types and sizes of UAVs, both armed and unarmed.”
In some ways, the future is now. In 2017, Iranian-made drones dropped small munitions near U.S. forces in Syria, forcing American aircraft to knock them out of the sky. Iranian drones have also buzzed American warships in the Persian Gulf, and Iranian-made unmanned suicide boats have targeted Saudi warships off the coast of Yemen.
American export restrictions on the sale of large long-range drones have allowed China and Iran to step in and fill the gap left open by US policies. Beijing has really stepped up its efforts to capture the market in ISR and strike drones, making plans to build a drone production facility in Saudi Arabia, and actively courting countries spurned by the American restrictions.
Exports of American-made drones have primarily been restricted to the handful of allies who have signed the Missile Technology Control Regime, a consortium of 35 nations that sets limits based on range and payload.
At issue are Category I drones, which can carry a payload of 500 kilograms for more than 300 kilometers. Under the MTCR, these systems are subject to a “strong presumption of denial” for transfer. But changes being proposed by Washington seek to open new categories of drones available for sale in part by focusing on speed instead of range— allowing drones that can fly less than 650 kilometers per hour to be capable of being shipped to international partners. U.S. partners such as Jordan, the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia — all denied requests to purchase drones from the United States — have turned to China, which is not an MTCR member.
Chinese CH-4 medium range drones are already stationed at the Saudi’s Jirzan Regional airport, not far from where UAE-operated Predator drones operate from the same air base. Egypt has also purchased the system, along with the Medium-Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Wing Loong drone.The UAE has also taken to selling drones to Russia and offering them to other countries. Overall, China has sold advanced drones to at least nine nations.
China has signed an agreement to establish a UAV manufacturing plant in Saudi Arabia to produce up to 300 new drones — some of them Category I. China and the UAE are not only marketing their own drones, but also offering to build factories for co-production.
Even MTCR member states appear to be edging away from the protocol, with Germany codeveloping a unmanned system with Qatar, and Italy making plans to export a long-range system to the UAE.
The Trump administration has been loosening controls on U.S. exports of advanced drones, allowing General Atomics sell some advanced drones to India, and lifting some other restrictions on arms transfers overall this spring.
The White House has for months been circulating what it calls its Arms Transfer Initiative, which would further slash red tape in military sales to allies, speeding up the process and making more weapons more readily available for export.
The Rand report concluded that while the MTCR has been effective in limiting the proliferation of large drones, “the availability of these vehicles from non-MTCR nations has significantly eroded the MTCR’s efficacy to limit the proliferation of large UAVs,” while also hurting U.S. drone makers who are restricted in who they can sell to.
Ellen Lord, head of Pentagon acquisition, told reporters at a special operations conference in Florida last month that she wants to “promote allied readiness by enhancing military capacity through targeting improvements in foreign military sales.”
The glacial pace of the U.S. government in approving sales means that some allies look elsewhere, telling American officials that “we’re going to go with the Russian alternative, we’re going to go with the Chinese alternative because we know we can get it quickly,” Lord said. “We know that it might fail 80 to 90 percent of the time, but we will have something. That’s a missed opportunity for the U.S. and we’re going to make sure we do everything possible to improve upon that.”