Trump Administration Plans to Bypass Arms Control Pact to Sell Large Armed Drones

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration plans to announce on Friday that it will allow the sale of armed drones to other nations and bypass part of an international weapons export control agreement that the United States helped forge more than three decades ago, congressional aides said.

Administration officials have been debating for years over how to sell armed drones despite clauses in the agreement, known as the Missile Technology Control Regime, that prevent its 35 members from doing so. The administration announced in 2018 that it was expanding drone sales, but has not been able to do so because of the limits set by the deal.

The agreement is not legally binding and is treated as an understanding among its member nations.

But bypassing one part of the pact could undermine the agreement in general and encourage other nations to selectively ignore or reinterpret clauses that they find inconvenient. The Trump administration has shown disdain for the concept of international agreements and has withdrawn from several major ones that previous administrations had negotiated with world powers, including the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal.

Some American officials have been frustrated by the export ban on large drones, including Peter Navarro, a White House trade adviser who advocates greater arms sales, as well as aides on the National Security Council and Pentagon officials who help oversee arms exports.

They argue that American companies must be able to sell the large drones to compete with China, which is not a member of the arms control agreement. A Chinese company, Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, has developed a drone, the Wing Loong II, that has the same abilities as the MQ-9 Reaper, made by General Atomics, based in San Diego.

This year, General Atomics stepped up its lobbying efforts with the administration and Congress to persuade the government to allow sales of the Reaper, whose export is banned by the international agreement, a congressional aide said.

The State Department did not return an email seeking comment.

Some lawmakers have been concerned about the yearslong effort among administration officials to bypass the ban. Several Middle Eastern nations are eager to buy drones capable of carrying large payloads, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which started a devastating air war in Yemen that has led to thousands of civilian deaths.

Lawmakers from both parties have tried to block the Trump administration and some American companies — Raytheon in particular — from selling arms to those two nations. Their militaries have used American bombs in the Yemen war, leading to widespread criticism of the United States by human rights groups. In May 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bypassed a congressional freeze on sales of $8.1 billion of arms to the two countries with an emergency declaration that might have been illegal.

Lawmakers have imposed a freeze on a package of Predator drones to the United Arab Emirates, though those machines are not the Reaper model whose export is banned by the arms agreement.

Arms exports, particularly to Gulf Arab nations, have led to some of the biggest clashes between the Trump administration and Congress. Administration officials have been discussing whether to end a decades-old process for congressional review of proposed sales.

Officials in the State Department and Pentagon who work on nonproliferation issues have pushed back internally on efforts by other officials to bypass the ban in the international agreement, which covers drones capable of carrying at least 500 kilograms, or over 1,100 pounds, of weapons over 300 kilometers, about 186 miles. Those officials and some lawmakers argue that other countries or companies can copy the technology once they are in possession of the drones and start making their own.

The United States has already quietly bypassed the arms agreement to give licenses to American companies to sell banned drones in at least four instances, mainly to NATO ally nations, a congressional aide said.

Besides countries in the Middle East, ones in East Asia and Central and Eastern Europe are likely to ask to buy the drones. Reuters reported last month that the United States was considering bypassing the arms agreement to sell larger drones.

The Missile Technology Control Regime was established in 1987 by the United States, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Britain to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The pact, which now includes 35 member nations, restricts the exports of missiles and their components. It has been credited with slowing down missile development programs in countries like Egypt and Iraq.

Michael LaForgia and Pranshu Verma contributed reporting.