Satellite images have revealed growing evidence that military drones exported by China have recently been deployed in conflicts in the Middle East and Africa by several countries, including allies of the United States that the U.S. blocked from purchasing American drone models.
Countries suspected of utilizing the drones exported from China include Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, representing a strategic and commercial blow to the U.S.
The Wall Street Journal reported that “the U.S. has long refused to sell the most powerful U.S.-made drones to most countries, fearing they might fall into hostile hands, be used to suppress civil unrest or, in the Mideast, erode Israel’s military dominance.”
According to sources familiar with U.S. drone sales, the United Kingdom is the only foreign country that has utilized armed Predators and Reapers, the most effective U.S. systems for offensive drone strikes.
While trying to facilitate exports under close regulation, the Obama administration worked to establish a global “drone code” that would monitor proliferation and prohibit misuse of the weapons.
China has entered the drone market, apparently exporting aircraft similar to General Atomic’s Predator and Reaper drones at a fraction of the cost to U.S. allies and partners, as well as to other customers.
“China’s sales have enabled multiple countries—including some with weak legal systems and scant public oversight of the military—to use unmanned aerial vehicles to spy and kill remotely as the U.S. has done on a large scale since 9/11,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
Officials at the Pentagon are concerned that advanced drones could be used against American forces. U.S. pilots have shot down two Iranian-made armed drones in Syria that were posing a threat to members of the coalition led by the United States.
Paul Scharre, a former Pentagon official at the Center for a New American Security, said that U.S. export policy that is prompting partners to purchase drones from the Chinese “hurts U.S. strategic interests in so many ways. It damages the U.S. relationship with a close partner. It increases that partner’s relationship with a competitor nation: China. It hurts U.S. companies trying to compete.”
In reaction to China’s drone export business, American manufacturers and politicians are lobbying the Trump administration to loosen controls on exports to keep China from growing their market share and undermining U.S. alliances.
A senior Trump administration official said that the drone export policy is under review by the White House National Security Council which is seeking to, “wherever possible,” remove obstacles to American companies’ ability to compete.
The official said, “We are attuned to what China is doing.”
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