US Red Tape Threatens Drone Sales in the Middle East

A crew chief prepares an MQ-1B Predator for a training mission.

U.S. Air Force photo by 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing

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A crew chief prepares an MQ-1B Predator for a training mission.

American companies are being bested by foreign firms when it comes to selling unmanned aircraft to friendly militaries overseas, says Textron Systems boss Ellen Lord. By Marcus Weisgerber

The painstakingly slow government process of selling weapons and drones to allies is hurting U.S. defense companies at a time when the industry is trying to compensate for lower Pentagon sales, says Ellen Lord, president and CEO of Textron Systems.

Moreover, the lack of speed is allowing European, Chinese and Russian firms to swoop in, particularly in the Middle East, where countries often want arms as quickly as possible due to a host security threats, including the recent spread of Islamic State militants.

“If we can sell F-35s to our allies, why can’t we sell [unmanned aircraft] and some small weapons on UAVs?” Lord said in an interview this week. “I just don’t understand that.”

She was referring to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a stealth aircraft being jointly developed by the United States and eight foreign partners. So far, 11 countries are expected to buy the sophisticated jet.

While the sale of a F-35 isn’t exactly a speedy process, the aircraft is considered a strategic long-term investment. But to address an immediate or tactical crisis, a country would need a drone equipped with high-resolution cameras, communications gear and weapons.

If we can sell F-35s to our allies, why can’t we sell [unmanned aircraft] and some small weapons on UAVs?
Ellen Lord
President and CEO, Textron Systems

“You need those unmanned aircraft systems to go in the very dangerous missions in contested space,” Lord said. “I think that that’s an opportunity. I think we need to be decisive and get them out there.”

Textron Systems officials have had what Lord termed “very robust discussions with the government” about the pace of foreign military sales. While senior-level Pentagon and State Department officials recognize the need for speed, potential sales are often slowed at the middle levels of government during the bureaucratic process, she said.

“I worry, frankly, that perhaps we are not motivating the people in the core of the government group to get these things expedited,” Lord said. “I’m afraid that perhaps sometimes we are far more risk averse and people are much more afraid of making a mistake than they are invested in getting the deals done so that the ultimate customer gets what needs to be delivered.”

(Related: Every Country Will Have Armed Drones Within Ten Years)

Companies frequently experience these slowdowns specifically when it comes to unmanned aircraft sales, she said. Textron Systems makes the Shadow, a small drone launched by a trailer catapult. The company has recently been developing small 13-pound weapons for the drone. It is also developing, on its own dime, new versions of the Shadow that could carry different intelligence sensors and satellite communications gear.

The U.S. government oversees foreign military sales and, in addition to equipment, these deals often include maintenance and training. By contrast, a direct commercial sale is when the manufacturer executes the sale. The federal government does not allow companies to sell certain weapons overseas, in many cases because it does not want risk adversaries to gain access to U.S. technologies.

We’re seeing a significant increase in the demand for foreign military sales.
Gen. Dennis Via,
Commander, Army Materiel Command

Because of the slowdown within these foreign military sales, Textron Systems – which does about half of its business internationally – has been looking to pursue direct commercial sales overseas for systems that do not include sensitive non-exportable equipment, Lord said.

The Missile Technology Control Regime, “an informal and voluntary association of countries which share the goals of non-proliferation of unmanned delivery systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction,” restricts the sale of U.S. armed and unarmed drones overseas. Thirty-four countries, including the United States, are part of the pact. But experts believe this policy needs to change.

“We’re concerned that some of our global competitors are getting ahead of us and we are not reaping the benefit of those international sales because of what I will call really a very conservative posture in terms of exporting,” Lord said.

Pentagon officials often tout U.S.-made weapons to allies.

“We’re seeing a significant increase in the demand for foreign military sales,” Gen. Dennis Via, the commander of Army Materiel Command, said Tuesday at the Association for the United States Army annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

This year alone, the Army has overseen 719 foreign military sales totaling more than $21 billion this year, he said.

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