Trump Administration Seeks to Expand Sales of Armed Drones

Delays in delivering weapons systems have long been an irritant to foreign governments and domestic manufacturers, and almost every administration in the modern era has tried to fix the process. Top aides in the Trump White House have frequently called officials at the State Department and the Pentagon to try to hurry things along.

But the deals can pose an array of challenges, involving not only national security issues, such as the transfer of sensitive technologies, but also economic ones. India, the world’s largest weapons buyer, often requires defense firms to build weapons in India in partnership with Indian firms, the kind of requirements that the Trump administration finds objectionable in China with regard to cars and other products.

The biggest change announced on Thursday involves the sale of larger armed drones like the Predator and the Reaper, which have been the workhorses of the fight against insurgents in Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan. President Barack Obama embraced the weapons but was also so troubled by such remote warfare tools that he placed unusual restrictions on their sale.

Those restrictions have allowed drone makers in Israel, China and Turkey to capture a large part of a market that American manufacturers had pioneered, something the Trump administration wants to reverse.

Under the old policy, only Britain, France and Italy were approved to purchase armed drones, according to Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.

As more countries are approved, “the risk is that countries may be more willing to use military force when they can do so without risking their own people,” Mr. Gettinger said.

Sales of smaller, unarmed drones have fewer restrictions, and American manufacturers dominate the market for those, Mr. Gettinger said.

The newly announced changes in the policy governing which countries can purchase sophisticated American-made weapons, known as the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy, instruct the government to take domestic economic concerns into greater account than it has in the past.

The new policy also says that consideration should be given to minimizing civilian casualties. That could potentially justify sales of “smart” bombs, which are easier to direct to specific targets.

But experts said that the changes are not likely to have much effect on sales.

“I think it’s political posturing,” said Rachel Stohl, managing director of the Stimson Center, a think tank focusing on foreign policy. “We already sell to almost everybody in the world. Are we really going to open markets to places like Iran and North Korea now? I don’t think so.”

The Obama administration was also enthusiastic about foreign weapons sales, which soared during its tenure. Direct weapons sales declined in the first year of the Trump administration from the year before and are now roughly half the level seen in 2011, the first full year of the Arab Spring.

The policy changes were announced two days after a hearing on Capitol Hill during which senators from both parties expressed anguish at the vast humanitarian crisis in Yemen, caused in part by Saudi Arabia’s use of American weapons.

A bipartisan group of senators has proposed legislation that would require the State Department to routinely certify that Saudi Arabia is taking steps to end the suffering there, the sort of review that slows weapons purchases. The Trump administration opposes the legislation.

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