President Trump holds a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office on March 20. A new government policy on drone sales will make it easier for U.S. companies to export military drones. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The Trump administration just announced a new drone export policy designed to make it easier for U.S. companies to export drones, including armed drones. Given concerns about the proliferation of these lethal systems, what explains this policy shift?

U.S. drone export policy is determined both by domestic policy and U.S. obligations as a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a voluntary export control regime with 35 member states. Created in 1987, the MTCR was designed to prevent the spread of missiles with the potential to carry weapons of mass destruction.

Even though drones are more akin to airplanes than missiles, drones that can travel more than 300 kilometers and carry a payload of more than 500 kilograms are subject to the “strong presumption of denial” for export by MTCR members. As a result, U.S. armed drones have been approved for sale only to Britain, Italy and France.

What does the new policy say?

The new policy goes further than the Obama administration’s 2015 guidance in a few ways. Certain drone sales can now go through the direct commercial sales process. This means U.S. manufacturers can export more directly to other countries and bypass the foreign military sales process, which entails more time-consuming involvement from the U.S. government.

Second, the new rules reclassify drones with strike-enabling technology, like laser target designators, as unarmed, which will make it easier to export them.

Additionally, the Trump administration is discussing changes to the MTCR — to no longer classify drones as cruise missiles. This will be hard to achieve, given that the MTCR operates by consensus, but the Trump administration could still decide to ease internal U.S. bureaucratic barriers to overcoming the “strong presumption of denial” that the MTCR requires members to use when considering exports of certain longer-range systems. How aggressively the Trump administration is willing to push the boundaries of the MTCR will determine the long-term significance of this policy change.

So, what explains this change in policy? Here are four insights:

1. Current efforts to prevent armed drone proliferation are not working. 

In the past, U.S. drone policy reflected a belief that if the United States restrained from exporting armed drones by strictly adhering to the MTCR, then other states, especially ones that regularly abuse human rights, could not acquire them.

However, according our ongoing research, about 20 countries now have armed drones. This includes many countries with questionable human rights records, such as Iran, Egypt, Uzbekistan and Burma.

So how did armed drones spread, given U.S. restrictions on exports? Supply and demand. National security concerns, among other factors, have led many countries to seek armed drones. That demand found a supplier in China and, to a lesser extent, Israel.

Of the countries (excluding China) that have acquired armed drones since 2010, 11 purchased them from China. Another, India, recently acquired armed drones from Israel. While China and Israel claim to follow the MTCR’s general guidelines, neither are MTCR members.

These trends suggest that drone proliferation may be inevitable — and that’s a likely reason for the Trump administration’s approach to drone export policy. Moreover, the Trump administration may believe that if countries buy American, this gives the United States greater influence over how they use their drones than if they buy elsewhere.

2. Current export restrictions put American allies at a comparative disadvantage.

The Trump administration also wants to help U.S. allies and partners help themselves, supporting broader U.S. national security priorities. President Trump has criticized NATO members and other U.S. allies for not spending enough on defense or doing enough against terrorism. Selling allies a military technology that is frequently used against terrorists may help address his concerns.

Initial results from our research also suggest that since 2010, non-democracies were more likely to acquire armed drones than democracies. While democracies could not turn to the United States to provide them with armed drones, China was more than willing to sell drones to non-democracies with spotty human rights records. Consequently, the easing of export restrictions may help even the playing field.

3. Existing export restrictions gave China a strategic advantage.

By dominating the armed drone export market thus far, China has built defense relationships with countries around the world — including U.S. allies and partners.

The Obama administration denied requests for armed or advanced unarmed drones from Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq. Subsequently, these countries bought armed drones from China. Saudi Arabia has also purchased armed drones from China.

The Trump administration thus might have thought that a restrictive drone export policy was ceding influence to China, something of concern, given that Trump’s national security strategy characterized China as a “competitor” and a “revisionist” power, and Trump himself labeled China a “rival” in his State of the Union address.

4. Existing export restrictions are costing the U.S. drone industry.

Restricting drone exports undermines the competitiveness of U.S. drone producers and reduces their revenue. Most analysts consider U.S. drones the most capable in the world — and relaxed restrictions could generate new business to help U.S. companies. Given Trump’s concern with boosting exports and reducing the U.S. trade deficit, increasing drone exports likely appealed on economic grounds, as well.

Drones are spreading rapidly — that’s a fact. 

The new Trump administration guidance attempts to align U.S. policy with the reality that global sales of military drones are rising. Of course, we have been here before. The 2015 Obama administration policy was also supposed to ease the drone export process.

The Trump administration policy goes further, by allowing direct commercial sales of armed drones and reclassifying drones with laser target designators as unarmed. However, the new policy likely disappoints industry advocates hoping for even clearer guidance and greater freedom to export armed, longer-range systems like the MQ-9 Reaper.

Given ambiguities in the new policy about when and how quickly the United States will approve exports, how significant a shift it is will depend on how tightly the U.S. national security bureaucracy implements it.

Michael C. Horowitz (@mchorowitz) is professor of political science and the associate director of Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania.

Joshua A. Schwartz is a PhD student in the political science department at the University of Pennsylvania.