Editorial Board

Let Middle Eastern Allies Help Win the Drone War

With some human-rights protections in place, the U.S. should export unmanned planes to the U.A.E. and Jordan.

Another desert Predator.

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

Selling weapons is and should be a fraught enterprise, even for the world's biggest arms supplier. Yet the U.S. is making it needlessly difficult for its allies to purchase armed drones -- with potentially dangerous consequences for both.

A bipartisan group of 22 members of the House of Representatives is urging the State Department to approve a sale of armed drones worth up to $1 billion to Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Given the vital support these nations give to the fight against terrorists, the sale should go through.

Foreign military sales are approved by the State Department under a system called Third Party Transfer. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. blocked sales of armed drones to Middle East allies -- although it sold unarmed ones to the U.A.E.

If the Trump administration wants to loosen restrictions on weapons exports, as it has said, then these unmanned aircraft sales could be an opportunity to show how they can be expanded responsibly. There are reasonable objections to selling more armed drones, but few stand up to scrutiny, especially when it comes to Jordan and the U.A.E.

One general objection is that drone technology may fall into the hands of potentially hostile nations. When it comes to drones, however, global expertise is advancing so quickly that this is far less a concern than exports of, say, fifth-generation fighter jets loaded with highly classified technology. At any rate, the truly hard part of a drone system is developing the necessary satellite systems, data uplinks and remote operating stations, along with training pilots -- all of which are far beyond the capabilities and budgets of, say, Islamic State or North Korea.

Another argument is that armed drones would make some U.S. allies, especially those with poor human-rights records, more inclined to reckless action. But a Predator drone can fire only two Hellfire missiles, which cost more than $100,000 apiece. If the U.A.E. wanted to start bombing indiscriminately, it could do so far more efficiently and effectively with its fighters and bombers.

Finally, there are the economic and geopolitical concerns: The global market in military drones is about to boom, and there's no reason U.S. companies should be left out of it. Indeed, shut out by the U.S., Jordan and the U.A.E. have already turned to China for armed drones.

Yes, any deadly weapon carries the potential for abuse. But the buyers of these drones will continue to be dependent on the U.S. for parts, missiles, software updates and the like (and it makes sense for the U.S. military and its allies in counterterrorism to be on the same technological platforms). The sales can be made on the condition that if the drones are used for human-rights violations, indiscriminate bombings or illegal surveillance, the U.S. would cut off all such necessary support.

The argument is not that U.S. manufacturers should be free to sell sophisticated arms willy-nilly across the globe. The government should continue to deal with every sale on a case-by-case basis. But the process can and should be approached with the presumption that trust in its allies requires some level of trust in their use of sophisticated military equipment.

    --Editors: Tobin Harshaw, Michael Newman

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.

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