The United States plans to reinterpret a decades-old arms control agreement so that US weapons companies can sell more unmanned aerial drones to nations including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose air strikes in Yemen have killed thousands of civilians.
An unnamed US government official and several arms industry executives told Reuters that the Trump administration wants to sidestep the Cold War-era Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a multilateral export control between 35 nations that seeks to limit the proliferation of missiles and missile technology. One of the pact’s goals is preventing the export of rockets or cruise missiles that can carry nuclear warheads or other weapons of mass destruction.
MTCR is not a treaty and is not legally binding; it is an informal understanding between signatory nations. However, the agreement has been credited with helping to stop or slow the several ballistic missile programs around the world, including the joint Argentine-Egyptian-Iraqi Condor II program and others in Brazil and South Africa. Some former Warsaw Pact nations, including Poland and the Czech Republic, scrapped their ballistic missiles in order to join the MTCR.
Reinterpreting the pact would enable US arms manufacturers to export drones like the MQ-9 Reaper, made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems primarily for the US Air Force. Reaper drones can carry a 3,750-pound (1,700-kilogram) payload 1,150 miles (1,850 kilometers). Under the current interpretation of the MTCR, exports of Reaper drones are prohibited.
According to Reuters, the State Department, which makes the final determination on drone sales, is expected to approve the first such sales under the reinterpreted MTCR as soon as this summer. The departments of Energy, Commerce, Justice and Homeland Security agreed to the change last month.
In addition to opening the door to expanded US drone sales, a reinterpretation of the MTCR also raises the danger that other countries like Russia would follow suit, undermining global anti-proliferation efforts.
Powerful military-industrial complex players like General Atomics and Northrop Grumman Corporation – the latter which makes unmanned aircraft systems including the MQ-4C Triton drone – are seeking to break into new markets currently dominated by China and Israel, which are not signatories to the MTCR. However, Chris Cole, founder of the UK-based anti-drone website Drone Wars, told Forbes that other countries are not exporting weapons that would violate the terms of the MTCR if they were signatories to the pact.
"The argument that the industry is putting forward and seems to have caught President Trump’s ear – that other countries like China and Israel are already exporting these types of capability so it’s unfair that the US is unable to – is simply wrong," said Cole. "For example, the drones that China are exporting – the Rainbow and Wing Long series – do not breach Category I of the MTCR [delivering a payload of 1,100 pounds more than 190 miles]. Israel, although not a member of the MTCR, voluntarily abides by its provisions and so too does not export this capability."
"If the US unilaterally breaches its MTCR commitments, it’s likely then that China and Israel would quickly follow suit by building and exporting drones with a larger weapons payload and this would have a significant negative impact on global peace and security," Cole added.
US weapons companies have indeed found an enthusiastic partner in the Trump administration. Heidi Grant, the Pentagon’s Director of Defense Technology Security Administration, told Reuters that expanded drone sales would boost allies’ armed forces and replace drones from other nations.
"If we are unable to meet this growing demand, we shoot ourselves in the foot," Grant said.
However, it’s not America’s feet that have human rights advocates concerned about the planned shift in US policy, but rather the lives of all the innocent people killed, maimed, displaced and terrorized by air strikes. Some of the countries most likely to purchase US drones include Saudi Arabia and Yemen, both of which have waged a US-backed war in Yemen in which coalition air strikes have hit homes, schools, hospitals and wedding parties, killing thousands of men, women and children. According to the Yemen Data Project, more than 8,600 people have been killed, and more than 9,700 others have been injured, in over 21,000 Saudi-led air strikes since the coalition began bombing Yemen in 2015.
As if to underscore the issue, a Saudi-led air strike on a vehicle traveling in the Shada area of Saada province, a Houthi rebel stronghold, killed the driver and all 12 passengers, including four children, on Monday, according to the Associated Press. The Houthi-run Health Ministry said it has identified 11 victims, including a woman and four children aged 12-14. Ministry spokesman Youssef al-Hadri said another two bodies were burned beyond recognition.
Despite its horrific human rights record at home and abroad, the US remains a steadfast ally of the theocratic monarchy that rules Saudi Arabia with an iron fist. Last year, President Donald Trump vetoed a bipartisan bill passed by Congress that would have ended US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. More recently, the administration drew bipartisan pushback for its plan to sell more than $8 billion worth of US arms to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. Lawmakers were outraged that the administration bypassed Congress when working out the deal. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a staunch supporter of the president, cited the kidnapping, murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, which the Central Intelligence Agency concluded was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as a reason to stop selling weapons to the kingdom.
"While I understand that Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of Mohammed bin Salman cannot be ignored," Graham said. "Now is not the time to do business as usual with Saudi Arabia."
Then there is the US’s own war record. Since waging the only nuclear war in history at the end of World War II, the US has killed more foreign civilians than any other armed force in the world, by far. Most of these deaths – which number in the millions – are the result of aerial bombardment. Estimates of civilian deaths in the current war against terrorism, now in its 19th year, range from hundreds of thousands to possibly over 2 million. Since 2001, thousands of civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Libya have been killed by US air strikes, including drone strikes. Civilian casualties have soared during the tenure of Donald Trump, who promised to "bomb the shit out of" Islamist militants and "take out their families," a war crime.
Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace.