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State can’t track drone exports

An Israeli IAI-Malat-EADS Eagle at the Asian Aerospace trade fair.

An Israeli IAI-Malat-EADS Eagle at the Asian Aerospace trade fair. // Wong Maye-e/AP file photo

The federal government has no way of knowing which countries have purchased U.S. unmanned aircraft because of inadequate databases and weak communication between licensing departments and intelligence agencies, government auditors found.

The lack of oversight, according to the Government Accountability Office, increases the risk that weaponized drones will fall into the wrong hands.

“Limitations in the U.S. government’s licensing data impair the ability of U.S. agencies and Congress to oversee the release of sensitive [unmanned aerial vehicle] technology,” Thomas Melito, GAO director for international affairs and trade, wrote in a new report. The State Department’s licensing database was never designed to produce complete data on the number, types and value of drone shipments.

The insufficient inventory is a problem because the study discovered that drones are proliferating globally. Current analysis indicates “the use of UAVs by foreign parties to gather information on U.S. military activities has already taken place,” Melito stated.

Enemy nations gather intelligence on the location, strength and movement of American troops with drone surveillance to plan counterattacks. As of now, most unmanned aircraft obtained by terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah, are more rudimentary than Western technology -- for example, radio-controlled jets widely available online, the audit found.

During the past seven years, the number of countries that acquired remotely piloted vehicles has almost doubled from about 40 to more than 75, according to GAO. China is trying to catch up with Western advances in weaponry by building high-speed drones designed for combat. Iran has fielded tactical aircraft that perform less sophisticated tasks, such as self-destructive air strikes.

“We were told that the significant growth in the number of countries that have acquired UAVs, including key countries of concern, has increased the threat to the United States,” Melito wrote.

The U.S. government has transferred drones to NATO allies such as Denmark, Italy and Lithuania, as well as to other countries such as Colombia, Israel and Singapore. But, again, U.S. officials are unsure which country was given which type of aircraft.

The U.S. government “has no comprehensive view of the volume of UAV technology it authorized for export,” Melito stated. Consequently, it is hard to discern trends in denied licenses, such as an uptick in questionable parties’ attempts to acquire drone technology, he added.

Beyond accounting issues, obtaining knowledge from the intelligence community has been a problem for export agencies, according to GAO. State and Commerce department officials told auditors that analysts do not provide them with relevant information on adversaries during decision-making. Defense Department officials also complained that data on suspicious parties listed on applications may not be factored into determinations because of such communication disconnects.

As a result, the Obama administration is deliberating how best to tip off the licensing agencies, the report stated. Also, Commerce told auditors that it has funded a new, in-house intelligence center that will, among other things, check the names of applicants against intelligence systems. Department officials stated they are coordinating with other licensing agencies to ensure details from the center are available to them when appropriate.

The drone audit was requested by Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., ranking member of the Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations. “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. The administration must take immediate steps to increase efforts to curb the spread of drones and reduce this threat to our national security,” he said in a statement.

State officials agreed to a GAO recommendation that they reorganize the database to better identify licenses authorizing the transfer of unmanned aircraft and associated parts.

The paper, an unclassified version of a confidential congressional report, leaves out descriptions of attempts by countries of concern and terrorists to obtain sensitive drone technology.

Despite risks, the administration says it’s important the United States continue increasing drone exports to defray the Pentagon’s acquisition costs. And private sector officials say unmanned aircraft will continue to be one of the most important growth sectors in the U.S. defense industry as long as American companies remain competitive with foreign drone manufacturers.

The United State is not the only distributor of drones. Many countries purchase them from Israel. Germany, France and the United Kingdom leased or bought unmanned aircraft from the Middle Eastern country for deployment in Afghanistan, according to GAO. Other nations, including Russia and Georgia, also obtained remotely piloted vehicles from Israel.

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