The US is Unwriting its Own Rulebook for the Sale and Deployment of Drones

Published April 11th, 2019 - 08:41 GMT
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Deploying drones fitted with missiles, guns or bombs is quickly becoming a preferred tactic for states and non-state actors alike. It’s cheap, it’s effective, it minimizes the aggressor's exposure when conducting operations and most critically it gives one side a micro-air force to wreak havoc on strategic targets.

Powerful states, terror groups and secretive guerrilla organizations have all adopted drones to be one of their primary tools in conducting operations.

But actually getting lethal drones from U.S. manufacturers has been tough. Since their advent, both the Bush and Obama administrations cautioned that lethal drones could easily end up in the wrong hands if they are overly commodified, so they both placed tight export controls on them.

Under Donald Trump, many of those export restrictions are now being thrown out the window in a bid to stay competitive with Russian and Chinese drones, which have little to no restrictions placed on them regarding their buyer or their intentions.

Since March 2018, the Trump administration has lowered the barriers for buying and selling U.S. drones, and even more pressure is being exerted to make the most lethal models available for purchase.

In loosening the regulations surrounding their use in conflict zones and opting out of releasing data on strike casualties, the Trump team is also making it easier to use them without effective oversight.

Collectively, these moves make getting and using lethal drones much easier, incentivizing the creation and expansion of small conflicts around the world where drones can serve as one side’s main force, as is the case with the U.S. in Somalia and Yemen.

These moves are subtle, and many will take years to fully register. As such, they have received little media attention, often falling to the wayside of other breaking news stories. But they represent a profound shift in how the U.S. conducts warfare and tie in to other administration efforts to commodify U.S.-made weapons.


Easing export controls

MQ-9 Reaper (U.S. Air Force)

An April 19, 2018 declaration that the U.S. is easing its export controls on drones was met with ecstatic joy from officials in the military-industrial complex.

“We’re getting outplayed all over the world,” a U.S. official told Reuters. “Why can our competitors sell to our own allies the equipment they are clamoring to buy from us? This policy is meant to turn that around.”

The White House’s National Trade council head, Peter Navarro, said the new rules would help clients “to more easily obtain” U.S.-made drones, allowing them to be competitive inside a drone market currently dominated by Russian, Israeli and Chinese products.

The new set of rules, entitled “U.S. Policy on the Export of Unmanned Aerial Systems” is intended to “remove barriers to the global UAS [Unmanned Aerial Systems] market and avoid ceding export opportunities to competitors where such self-imposed restrictions are unwarranted.”

In practical terms, this means loosening government oversight of armed drone sales, as well as decreasing the amount of subsequent monitoring the U.S. government performs after the deal is made.

The new rules “saw the bar lowered for the sale of armed drones to countries around the world,” explained Ella Knight, a researcher on drones with Amnesty International.

“The new policy allows arms manufacturers to negotiate sales directly with foreign governments, and lowers some of the after-sale ‘end-use monitoring’ requirements associated with export of unarmed drones equipped with lasers designators. As a result, more States are now able to acquire drones with less scrutiny.”

Knight added that this now allows states, which were previously barred from buying U.S. armed drones over concerns of their use in conflict zones, to now acquire these weapons if they have the finances.

Previous administrations sought to restrict drones sales as much as possible, for fear they could end up in the hands of regimes or non-state actors who could use them to target civilians, sell them in grey markets, or use them against U.S. interests.

The Obama-era regulations from 2015 that Trump’s new rules replaced emphasized oversight and restrictions rather than market competition. It called for “Enhanced Controls on the Export of U.S.-Origin Military UASs” that included intensive end-use monitoring and multiple sales reviews from different U.S. departments.

Some in the U.S. drone manufacturing business aren’t satisfied with Trump’s export reforms, which haven’t significantly boosted U.S. drone sales abroad, and are now actively pushing the administration to lower the regulatory barrier even further.

Regimes aligned with the U.S., including the U.A.E, and Saudi, are barred from getting the U.S.’ latest and greatest in armed drone tech. They have had to make due with homemade knockoffs, non-lethal U.S. drones and importing cheap, lethal Wing Loong types from China.

That may change very soon.


A Chinese-made Wing Loong drone at the Dubai Airshow, November 14, 2017, United Arab Emirates (AFP/FILE)

Lt. Gen. Charles Hooper, director of the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), told reporters in Feb 2019 that the U.S. is looking to change protocols within the Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy to allow the sale of high-tech, armed drones to Gulf states.

“We want to make many of our unmanned aerial systems available to our partners. Many of them have been asking for some time, we’re going to move forward as quickly as possible,” Hooper said at an international defense industry conference in Abu Dhabi.

One of the most sought-after drones in the Gulf market reportedly has been the MQ-9 Reaper, manufactured by General Atomics.

The MQ-9 Reaper is categorized as a hunter-killer drone capable of flying with four hellfire missiles in addition to laser-guided bombs. Able to carry much heavier payloads, and fly for faster and for much longer times, the MQ-9 s built to be replace the MQ-1 Predator drone. The U.S. has deployed the MQ-9 Reaper in the wars in Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan.

For over a year, General Atomics has been telling Gulf clients they can expect to buy the coveted MQ-9 Reaper in the near future. “With the new policies emerging under President Trump, General Atomics has been advising potential customers around the world, including the Middle East, to go ahead and start asking the U.S. government to buy drones they’ve been eyeing,” a report said, quoting Jim Thomson, a regional vice president for General Atomics.


Unwriting the rulebook for drone’s use in wars



Smoke billows from an explosion in Mosul, during the battle to take the city from ISIS (AFP/FILE)

When it comes to actually deploying drones, other Trump policies have made it easier to use them more frequently, with less oversight and less transparency. In this sense, his moves related to drone wartime conduct mirror the regulatory race to the bottom he has participated in with the sale of drones.

The Trump administration has carried out three critical reforms to the business of deploying drones in conflict zones, which have amalgamated into a completely new military approach to drone warfare.

First, the Trump team authorized the CIA to carry out strikes. Then they rewrote the rules for deploying them. Finally, they designated parts of Yemen and Somalia to be ‘areas of active hostilities’ while refusing to release information on strike casualties.

After only a few months in the White House, Trump wasted no time reforming rules regarding who can pull the trigger on drone strikes. In March 2017, he returned the ability to carry out drone strikes to the CIA. During the past administration, the CIA lost the ability to conduct strikes to the Pentagon.

Christopher Anders, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union, decried the move, saying, “in a constitutional system of checks and balances, you want something like the power to take life in massive ways to be with institutions that are accountable to other parts of the government, certainly accountable to Congress, accountable to the White House, accountable to courts. And the Defense Department fits into that category.”

The CIA, as a secretive organization, is less integrated into legal mechanisms of accountability and transparency than the Department of Defense, Anders argued. Its ability to plausibly deny carrying out clandestine operations gives it power to attack quietly strategic targets that the Pentagon cannot.

After Trump gave CIA authorization to conduct drone strikes, he also allowed them and other intelligence agencies to refuse to publish information on those strikes, including the number of casualties they caused, with an executive order signed into law on March 6, 2019. As a result, there has been a government black-out of reliable information on the strikes they are carrying out.

“Removing the transparency measures on drone strikes by the CIA could result in expanding use of armed drones outside the battlefields,” Wim Zwijnenburg, the Humanitarian Disarmament Project Leader for PAX, a Dutch peace organization, told Al Bawaba.

With no reporting mechanism in place to ensure transparency over drone strikes, “we might see a more trigger happy CIA behind the joystick, who traditionally have had less qualms about collateral damage,” Zwijnenburg added.

In the same month Trump gave the CIA new drone strike powers, he also designated areas of Somalia and Yemen as “active areas of hostilities.” An area of active hostility, in U.S. military-political jargon, is a way to refer to active warzones. It is distinct from a legally declared warzone.


An African Union soldier surveys damage done by an Al-Shabaab suicide attack (AFP/FILE)

Designating some areas of the world “active areas of hostilities” is a policy tool designed by the Obama administration to manage the rules of engagement in various conflict zones in which the U.S. is indefinitely involved. During his tenure, Obama designated parts of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to be active areas of hostilities.

Practically speaking, designating an area as an active area of hostilities allows the U.S. military to abide by less rules and vetting when engaging targets, giving local commanders much more autonomy and less oversight during operations. This means drones and deployed soldiers have less legal hurdles to clear before striking.

The real-world impact of those designations and looser battlefield rules have been immediate and devastating.

In Syria and Iraq, Trump’s policies and drone war led to a steep increase in civilian casualties caused by drone strikes. Airwars, an independent military watchdog, estimated that U.S. drone strikes killed between 7,500 and 12,077 civilians since 2014, with a sharp increase in early 2017.

One reason is because the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS began a campaign to recapture the heavily populated city of Mosul from ISIS around that time.

But Omar Mohammed, a Mosuli activist who lived in Mosul while it was controlled by ISIS and blogged under the pseudonym of Mosul Eye, told Al Bawaba that the coalition pursued an overly aggressive strategy that trapped ISIS inside congested, ancient areas of west Mosul, rather than letting the combatants leave the area. Airstrikes could not help but hit civilians trying to hide from the battle.

One airstrike hit a residential block filled with civilians that were huddled inside. As many as 200 were killed.

During the battle for Mosul, thousands of civilians were evaporated by U.S. drones, and the city was reduced to heaps of rubble.

In Somalia, the designation has led to a skyrocketing number of drone strikes.



The rate of U.S. strikes in Somalia have tripled since Trump’s presidency, causing civilian displacement in the process.

While many of the drone strikes have hit clusters of al-Shabaab soldiers, they do not have appeared to significantly hindered the group’s organization or operational capacities. In March 2019, Al Shabaab launched seven deadly attacks on Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, and is reportedly gaining some power in neighboring Kenya.

At the same time the U.S. began ramping up drone strikes, the Trump team re-wrote the Obama-era rulebook for drone use outside of conflict zones.

The new Principles, Standards, and Procedures (PSP), which replaced Obama’s guidebook called the Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG), allows military commanders to strike targets which do not pose imminent threats to the U.S. Though this gives them greater leeway to hit militant networks in general and not just their soldiers, it also removes a key vetting procedure for strike targets.

If you’re the head of a regime observing these developments from afar, including the lower of drone export rules, they could all come as welcome news.

“If these drone operations will expand under the Trump administration and without any international condemnation of their use in extrajudicial killings,” Wim Zwijnenburg explained, “other states might follow suit as armed drones have seen a massive boom in exports and use across the Middle East and northern and central Africa.”

Because the U.S. is a key global trend setter in wartime conduct and international law, removing means of oversight, vetting and monitoring gives a justification for other states to follow suit or simply refuse to implement these transparency measures in the first place.

Over time, a precedent of minimal regulation could be set globally even as armed drones saturate military and militias arsenals. That saturation itself is partially the product of the U.S. all but forgoing its concern that drones could ‘end up in the wrong hands’ by demonstrating a willingness to sell drones to the highest bigger, no matter their human rights record or links to terror groups.

“More states now possess the deadly tools to target armed groups in remote areas, which also bring with them the risks of civilian deaths, but that [can] easily be hidden under [a] cloak of secrecy, “Zwijnenburg warned.

“Such a development will only lead to more insecurity and instability in already conflict-prone regions in the world.”

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