China’s no-rules approach to armed drone exports has Beijing positioned to dominate the rapidly growing multibillion-dollar market, frustrating American companies while presenting real national security dangers for the Trump administration.
Behind the scenes, industry watchers say, the Trump administration is scrambling to fashion a coherent policy toward military unmanned aerial systems (UAS) sales that allows American firms to tap the huge international demand for drones while ensuring that state-of-the-art weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands.
By contrast, China has shown itself willing to sell to just about anyone, including customers in terrorist hotbeds such as Pakistan, threatening to render America’s policy scruples obsolete.
“It’s kind of the wild, wild West when it comes to selling things to other countries. [The Chinese] have no problems going in and selling to people we won’t sell to,” said Michael Blades, research director for aerospace and defense at the leading international law firm Frost and Sullivan.
Although China’s goal is simple — to make money and control a cutting-edge, high-technology, high-value market — the U.S. approach is murky at best. Decisions on which countries are allowed to buy American drones are made on a case-by-case basis, with no firm list on which nations can purchase them at any given time, and a lack of basic data on how many UAS are sold each year and to whom.
“If there was a certain policy that was in place and we could count on it, there might be some momentum … but there doesn’t seem to be any hard-and-fast rules for what the policies are going to be,” said Mr. Blades. “It’s very difficult to gauge what may or may not happen with regard to these kinds of sales when you’re not certain from day to day.”