Drones are a rapidly expanding market in the international arms trade. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) is crucial for operating in the modern battlespace and drones are the best way to get that information by maximizing loiter and removing risk to a pilot. Demand is high and supply is low; only a few countries produce the class of drones that are most in demand. This would seem a perfect market for the United States to sell its wares and dominate the exchange but it is currently hamstrung by policies which discourage their export. The hesitation to export the technology, while done for good reasons like maintaining United States’ technological advantage and protecting a powerful capability from exploitation by foreign agents, is misguided; without the powerful network of communications satellites and Global Information Grid (GIG), the drones themselves are little more than complex model airplanes with good cameras. The United States’ efforts are akin to closing Pandora’s Box because of imagined evils without recognizing the good that remains left trapped inside.
Exporting drones is a good thing for the United States. First, it promulgates a capability we want our allies and partners to possess. For years, British and Italian MQ-9 Reapers have patrolled the skies over Afghanistan, bringing the twin benefit of additional ISR to the battlefield and eliminating the need for American assets to cover those units. In addition, the British have armed MQ-9s that provide additional strike assets to coalition operations. The United States only stands to gain by exporting more of these assets.
Dominating the supply of drones brings the United States leverage it would not otherwise have. Just as with other aviation assets, drones need a steady stream of supplies to be viable. If the country that operates those assets uses them for purposes that are against the United States’ interests, the United States can then press forward with sanctions and cut off supply of crucial parts needed to keep the assets operational. In a world fraught with fault lines and shifting loyalties, leverage matters.
There are a couple arguments in favor of restricting drone exports. The first is wishful thinking. The argument holds that by restricting the sale of to foreign clients, we will deny them drone capabilities, particularly their ability to conduct strike missions. The problem is that Pandora’s Box is already open. Even though there are few suppliers of in the field right now, there are many others that are about to enter the market. A joint European consortium, led by France, is developing the nEUROn. Britain is developing the Taranis. China is aggressively marketing the ASN-209 at international airshows. Chris Rawley highlighted Singapore’s entry into the market in his recent article (https://cimsec.org/unmanned-systems-distributed-operations-one-many/). Even Turkey is developing the Anka. If there are lots of suppliers, the United States will no longer have its privileged negotiating position and will need to make more available to encourage use of its platforms. This means expanding the list of what is exportable and seriously considering exporting armed assets.
Britain is developing the Taranis, one of many competitors the United States will face in the international drone marketplace (image from BAE Systems)
The other argument against exporting drones is out of fantasy (as Dave Blair elucidates in his excellent article here: https://cimsec.org/remote-aviation-technology-actually-talking/). The argument goes that the United States should not export drones because they are a revolutionary capability that would unfairly strengthen possible adversaries. This, too, falls short. The aircraft themselves are only a small portion of the equation and what makes them great tools of war. The real strength of drones is their ability to conduct global operations which requires the United States’ network of satellite communications to operate in a distributed manner. Without that network, the drones are nothing more than a more capable model airplane that linger longer than a fighter or helicopter.
The story of Pandora’s Box ends with Pandora desperately shutting the lid in a vain attempt to keep bad things from entering the world. Unfortunately for Pandora, it was too late; the damage was done. The only effect that she reaped by keeping the box closed was to leave hope penned inside. While the United States did not unleash the desire for countries to acquire drones, it certainly is achieving the same effect as Pandora by ignoring the world in which it lives. The better course of action is to recognize what drones are truly capable of on their own and embrace an export mindset.
Matthew Merighi is a civilian employee with the United States Air Force’s Office of International Affairs (SAF/IA). His views do not reflect those of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or Air Force.
This post is part of a group created in partnership with the US Naval Institute covering a Lockheed Martin media event for the F-35 Lightning II. For an analysis of the fighter’s potential as an unmanned aircraft, visit here. For my discussion of other domestic considerations with the program’s development, visit here.
Though I didn’t get my mandatory crew rest, taking a turn on the stick of the F-35 Lightning II cockpit demonstrator was a great opportunity. Even better, though, were the insights I gained regarding the international aspects of the program. International cooperation defines the F-35 in a way unlike many other acquisitions programs. As I needed to catch up on my facts and figures, I’ll include them for those who need to get up to speed:
- Foreign sales (both contracts with international partners in the F-35 program and traditional Foreign Military Sales [FMS]) currently account for approximately three out of eight aircraft that will be produced in the program of record. This includes 700 aircraft for international partners in the program and a projected 800 to be sold through FMS. As of now, 61 FMS aircraft are confirmed.
- Though the US remains the largest purchaser of the F-35, international sales will account for the majority of aircraft delivered between 2014 and 2017. This reflects, according to Lockheed Martin, the need of foreign militaries to recapitalize aging aircraft. I think the rapidity with which international military forces will begin fielding the F-35 is an interesting and under-reported aspect of the overall procurement plan.
- International deliveries begin next week. A ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas and a flight to Eglin AFB in Florida will herald the delivery of the first F-35 to the United Kingdom. The next foreign delivery will occur in September to The Netherlands.
- A major section of the fuselage – called the empennage – is produced in the United Kingdom by BAE Systems.
For all of the discussion regarding the F-35 in the US, the public often neglects the effect that changes to the F-35 program will have on other partners in the program. These partners are close allies and we have, by soliciting their funding, obligated ourselves in many ways to go the distance.
Blurring military acquisitions with diplomacy makes the F-35 program a tool of foreign policy in and of itself. Though domestic political concerns have raised valid questions regarding the future of the F-35, Americans need to consider the impact to our foreign policy caused by any changes to the program. Anyone arguing for the truncation or the elimination of the F-35 program must also explain how the United States will mitigate the damage such an act would cause to our international relationships.
As a final note, Scott Cheney-Peters and I had a great discussion – which included international aspects of the F-35 program – at TheRiskyShift.com‘s new “Debrief” podcast. Grab some coffee (or tea, for those across the pond) and take a listen!
LT Kurt Albaugh, USN is President of the Center for International Maritime Security, a Surface Warfare Officer and Instructor in the U.S. Naval Academy’s English Department. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.