The Trump administration has ordered government agencies to expedite and expand arms sales abroad, including exports of advanced drones to reinforce allied armies and to compete with China.
The White House on Thursday announced an update to US policy on arms transfers in an effort to promote exports and specifically to loosen the rules on selling unmanned warplanes.
US President Donald Trump's chief trade advisor, Peter Navarro, said the move was designed to reverse former president Barack Obama's "myopic" decision to limit even US allies' access to drone technology.
The changes include allowing direct commercial sales that don't have to go through the government by companies that obtain an export permit and eliminating special scrutiny of laser devices on Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), meaning drones that can be used for military targeting.
"The administration's UAS export policy will level the playing field by enabling US firms to increase their direct sales to authorized allies and partners," Navarro said. The move would make it possible for US arms firms to directly market drones instead of forcing foreign customers to apply to the government. This would allow them to compete against sales of Chinese "knock-offs," he added.
According to the White House US weapons and aerospace exports are worth $1 trillion and support 2.5 million jobs. The policy change was also intended to eradicate the United States huge trade deficit, Navarro added.
Navarro also noted that Obama era restrictions on UAS exports made exports difficult and allowed competitors including China to move quickly into a market forecast to reach $50 billion a year in the next decade.
US officials were "seeing Chinese replicas of American UAS technology deployed on the runways in the Middle East," he said, citing China's Wing Loong 2 medium-altitude, long-endurance drone manufactured by Chengdu Aircraft Group as an example.
The United States pioneered the use of unmanned aircraft, some of them flown by pilots half-a-world away through satellite links to a ground station, for spotting missions and missile strikes. They have been deployed both by the US military in support of overt deployments in the so-called war on terror and by the CIA for covert targeted strikes to kill suspected militants.
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"Partners who procure American weaponry are more capable of fighting alongside us, and are also more capable of protecting themselves with fewer American boots on the ground," Navarro said.
Trump previewed plans for a new approach toward weapons sales during an appearance in Florida with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday.
The US president has frequently criticized that it would take "in some cases years before orders would take place" because of bureaucracy with the US Department of Defense and State Department.
He said that he would be "short-circuiting" that, with exports being allowed within "a matter of days."
Despite the changes, drone sales, even to close allies, will continue to be reviewed under criteria including whether they support national security interests, how they affect the military balance in the country's region and whether they might have an adverse impact on US defense readiness.
Under long-standing practice, Congress has the key role in determining whether a proposed arms sale gets final approval.
Administration officials insisted human rights — including the risk of civilian casualties — would remain a consideration in arms sales. But they repeated a mantra that "economic security is national security."
uhe/jd (AFP, Reuters)