By Aram Roston
More than 75 countries around the world now field UAVs of some sort, up from 41 countries in 2005, a newly released Government Accountability Office report says.
The U.S. is one of the major exporters of UAV technology, and what is troubling about that, according to the GAO and the congressman who commissioned the report, is that the U.S. State Department can't even fully keep track of what military drone technology it has licensed to ship overseas. The report, which was completed in July, was not released until September 12.
The U.S. government, GAO says, "has no comprehensive view of the volume of UAV technology it authorized for export."
Nations that have acquired UAV systems vary from friendly allies, like the UK and the UAE, to the unexpected, such as the Ivory Coast and even Trinidad and Tobago, according to the GAO's list. Then there are the downright hostile countries on the list, such as Iran or Belarus.
"The fact that the U.S. government has allowed drone technology to fall into the hands of our enemies is extremely troubling for our country and our military," said Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., who had requested the GAO report. "The administration must take immediate steps to increase efforts to curb the spread of drones and reduce this threat to our national security."
For export licensing purposes, the U.S. says some UAV systems are regulated as strategic missile systems, under the Missile Technology Control Regime. The agency that licenses UAV technology with military applications is the State Department's Directorate of Defense Trade Controls.
In practice, GAO auditors said they couldn't tally what's really been sold overseas.
"Specifically," the report said, "[the State Department's] licensing database was not designed to produce complete data on the number, types, and value of UAV technology that State has licensed for export."
Still, they were able to calculate that over five years, the government approved the export of at least $240 million in direct commercial sales of military UAV technology. On top of that, the U.S. sold $144 million directly to other governments under the Foreign Military Sales program.
Tierney, the ranking member of the House subcommittee on national security, homeland defense, and foreign operations, argued that the Obama administration needs to change things fast.
"The GAO report released today," he said, "finds that countries with drones or unmanned aerial vehicles nearly doubled in seven years and many of the countries that have acquired UAVs could put U.S. military assets at risk."
The State Department needs to improve its database so it can track the exports, the GAO said, and needs to improve coordination with other agencies. The State Department told auditors it was rewriting the U.S. munitions list to clarify controls over UAV.