The Trump administration moved Friday to ease controls on exports of armed drones, saying that allies need US technology and that other countries outside of a non-proliferation pact were taking over the market. Updated export restrictions on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), with the new speed limit of 800 kmph, will not only help its allies in the Middle-East facing the brunt of Chinese armed drones in Libyan theatre but will also help India acquire proven Predator-B armed and Global Hawk surveillance drones from the US. Both the top of line drones have speeds less than 800 kmph.
The White House announced that President Donald Trump had approved a move to diverge partly from the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime, in which 35 countries agreed to restrict the sales of unmanned weapons delivery systems. A statement issued “The President has decided to invoke our national discretion to treat a carefully selected subset of missile technology control regime category I unmanned aerial systems (UAS), which cannot travel faster than 800 kmph as category II… This will increase our national security by improving the capabilities of our partners and increase our economic security by opening the expanding UAV market.” This policy change means that the UAVs under 800 kmph will no longer be subjected to the “strong presumption of denial” of the MTCR”.
The Missile Technology Control Regime was aimed at controlling the spread of missiles that could deliver large pay-load like nuclear weapons.
But it also covered armed drones, at the time, not a major component of armed conflict as they are now.
The change ordered by Trump will reclassify armed drones from a technology whose export is severely restricted to a category that can be considered on a case-by-case basis.
The drones in the category must have a maximum airspeed of fewer than 800 kilometers per hour, which will allow sales of the Reaper and Predator drones used by the US military, as well as others made by US defense manufacturers.
“The MTCR’s standards are more than three decades old,” the White House said in a statement.
“Not only do these outdated standards give an unfair advantage to countries outside of the MTCR and hurt United States industry, but they also hinder our deterrence capability abroad by handicapping our partners and allies with subpar technology.”
The White House statement said two years of talks had failed to reform the MTCR.
The move has worried arms control advocates who say the US sale of advanced drones to more countries could fuel the global arms race.
“The Trump administration has once again weakened international export controls on the export of lethal drones,” said Senator Bob Menendez in a statement.
Benefit for India
While the US defense contractors were restricted by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) UAS clause, the Chinese have been supplying Wing Loong armed drones to Pakistan and for use in Yemen and Libyan civil war. According to intelligence reports, China has already supplied four Wing Loong armed drones to Pakistan for protection of the CPEC and Gwadar port. The drone, which has a limited track record, carries more than 1,000 kilograms of bombs or air-to-surface missiles. Neither China nor Pakistan are members of the MTCR, hence there is no restriction on Beijing to export these systems to Islamabad.
It is the introduction of Wing Loong into the Indian sub-continent which has prompted India to relook the acquisition of Predator-B drone, proven in Afghan and Iraq theatre, for the Indian military. The Predator-B is the armed version of Guardian drone, twenty-two of which have been approved for sale to India by the Trump administration. Predator B can carry four Hellfire missiles and two 500-pound laser-guided bombs.
By tweaking the MTCR rules for UAS, President Trump has opened doors for India to acquire the armed drones as well as systems to counter them. The armed drones will also be available to US allies like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt who have acquired the Chinese armed drones.
As the cost of a Predator-B drone is no less than a fighter aircraft, the Indian Air Force may have to reduce its limit of manned fighters to create squadrons of armed drones within the present Cabinet sanction of 42 squadrons.
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