HORSE OUT OF THE BARN

The Bad Guys Are Buying Death Drones

China has started selling large military drones to countries that the U.S. and Israel would not, a report ordered by Congress warns the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

By R. Jeffrey Smith and Matt Stroud

U.S. military forces face a growing threat from sophisticated and often deadly drones, due to the broad proliferation of related weapons and surveillance technologies that until recently have largely been in the hands of friendly countries, according to a new report prepared for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The global spread of these technologies was supposed to be controlled by a system of export controls created by the West to block the spread of advanced missiles, but that system has failed to obstruct the development of drones that have potent surveillance and destructive power by potential American adversaries, the report says.

Countries like China, Russia, Iran, and even the United Arab Emirates are not only producing lethal drones but in some cases exporting both the drones and their underlying technologies.

While the most capable military drones have been used by only around ten countries until now, that number is about to expand, analysts at the RAND Corporation state in their 70-page report to Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr., the Joint Chiefs chairman.

China is building a factory in Saudi Arabia meant to produce CH-4 drones that can loiter for at least 14 hours while carrying anti-armor missiles and heat sensors, and is offering to erect drone factories elsewhere, such as Pakistan and Myanmar, the report notes. China may also use the factory to make better CH-5 drones capable of carrying precision-guided missiles for as long as 39 hours.

In an illustration of how routine such deployments have become, Chinese CH-4s are already stationed at the Saudi’s Jirzan Regional airport, near U.S. Predator drones owned by UAE that are operating from the same airbase, according to satellite photos analyzed by experts at Bard College. The Emirates, meanwhile, are selling drones of their own to Russia while also offering coproduction opportunities to other countries. Germany and possibly Italy are moving towards the production and export of similar advanced drones.

“The proliferation of large UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] is accelerating,” said the June 14 report, “Assessment of the Proliferation of Certain Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems,” which was ordered by Congress.

The size of these drones gives them the capability to carry weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. But RAND’s Cyber and Intelligence Policy Center, which did the study for the Pentagon, says those uses are less likely than simply conducting advanced surveillance of U.S. forces before the outbreak of war.

Large drones are especially useful in monitoring the movement of troops and equipment near coastlines or borders, and at sea, or keeping track of “personnel and equipment readiness” on the eve of conflict, the report said. Drones of this type – like the Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk used by the United States for years in the Middle East and Africa -- “can carry larger sensors, providing better data and longer standoff distance, and can carry more munitions,” the report said.

Until recently, only Israel and the United States exported such advanced drones, and only to countries that respected the missile technology control regime. In total, Washington has approved the sale of 103 such drones, but only three countries – Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom – have gotten armed versions.

China picked up the slack, however, when U.S. and Israeli sales to Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia were blocked under the export control rules, the report notes. China has sold two of its advanced drones to at least nine nations, including these disappointed U.S. suitors.

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Large drones have become “the predominant tactical collection platform” across all levels of command in modern military forces, the RAND analysts said. Iran uses them to watch U.S. Navy forces in the Persian Gulf, while China has used them to monitor naval maneuvers in the East China sea. France uses them to assist a United Nations mission in Mali and to conduct strikes against militants in the Sahel-Sahara region. The UAE uses them to help the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and to assist the Libyan National Army fight militants in that country.

The report cites an estimate by the Stimson Center, a Washington-based, nonpartisan think-tank, that the global drone market – both military and commercial – will vault from $6 billion in 2015 to double that by 2025.

The Obama administration responded to the drone proliferation threat by pressing in 2016 for an international agreement on global export standards. Although 53 countries supported the concept and agreed to begin discussions, they bore no fruit. Even the European Union has failed to come up with a single policy on the use of armed drones. China never agreed to join the discussions.

The Trump administration’s response has been to loosen controls on U.S. exports of advanced drones, on grounds that U.S. companies should be able to compete more effectively in the expanding global marketplace. Last year, it agreed to let General Atomics sell some advanced drones to India, for example. And in April 2018, the Trump administration created streamlined government procedures for additional export approvals.

The RAND analysts raised no objections to this path, arguing that the horses were, in effect, already out of the barn, and that continuing to tightly control U.S. exports might push some allied countries to buy drones from others – which might in turn undermine future joint military operations that heavily use drones.

Peter Lichtenbaum, a former official of BAE Systems, one of the world’s largest defense contractors, said at a recent Stimson Center conference that the new U.S. export policy – and the resulting increase in U.S. sales -- would boost the nation’s ability to “be a leader” in ensuring that drones are not misused.

Rachel Stohl, an expert on drone policy who is managing director of the Stimson Center, said that while ”the United States has been overtaken as the prominent drones exporter…we can’t use the justification of economic benefit to overshadow our national security, foreign policy, and human rights concerns” about future drone sales.

“We need to make sure we’re making decisions based on what is in the best interest of the United States – which is not solely limited to the economic opportunity of the sale. Just because everyone else is selling drones, doesn’t mean the United States has to eliminate the safeguards it’s put in place,” Stohl said.  

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, investigative newsroom in Washington, D.C. More of its national security coverage can be found here.