Biden administration struggles to sell armed drones to Indonesia

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The State Department and the White House have been working for months on a new arms transfer policy that promises to put a renewed emphasis on human rights and the protection of civilians, a review that could complicate some deals in courses with countries that have a history of abuse.

This review and the demands of Qatar and Indonesia have contributed to a wider debate within the Biden administration on the export of armed drones, and on which countries should be able to acquire this capability with state assistance. United, said a defense industry official familiar with the talks. Indonesia and Qatar have a history of human rights violations, and some US diplomats are reluctant to transfer weapons that could be used against civilians.

A State Department official confirmed that the review of arms control policies takes into account “the link between human rights and arms transfers and underlines the importance of promoting transfers when are in the national interest of the United States ”.

There is also uncertainty as to whether Indonesia has the appropriate regulatory processes in place to protect US-made technology and whether the government could support high-end technology in the long term. The Indonesian embassy did not respond to a request for comment, and a State Department spokesman said the agency was not discussing internal deliberations over potential arms sales.

The issue of selling Gray Eagle drones to Indonesia has arisen since the Trump administration last year, when it determined that the country’s defense capabilities “as part of the broader Indo-Pacific strategy require drone capabilities to support the maritime security of the Navy and Coast Guard. R. Clarke Cooper, former Assistant Secretary for Politico-Military Affairs at the State Department under Trump, told POLITICO.

This need was partly met by the US donation of a dozen ScanEagle drones for maritime surveillance in 2020, after repeated Chinese incursions and illegal fishing around the Natuna Islands – which lie in the exclusive economic zone of the United States. Indonesia, but also fall under China’s disputed claims – frustrated Jakarta. and threatened to spark a wider conflict.

The larger armed MQ-1C drones would represent a major improvement over the unarmed ScanEagles, which can fly for approximately 18 hours at 19,000 feet. The MQ-1 can stay in the air for up to 25 hours at 29,000 feet and can carry more weight for surveillance packages or four Hellfire missiles.

There are fears, however, that the sale to Indonesia of a drone capable of carrying missiles, even if Washington does not arm it, could lead Indonesia to buy missiles from China or Russia in an attempt to install them. on the American plane. In April, indicated reports that Jakarta had purchased AR-2 air-to-surface missiles from China to arm its Chinese-made CH-4 drones.

While Jakarta and Beijing have a strained relationship around fishing rights, their small defense sales ties are still a concern for Washington, as is Jakarta’s continued dependence on Russia for arms, including the possibility of purchasing Su-35 fighters.

Despite the risks, a sale of drones would have a geostrategic advantage for the United States, supporters argue. As Washington shifts its focus from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region, Indonesia has become a strategic ally in competing with China. Selling armed drones with significant surveillance capabilities would help build that military relationship and potentially prevent Indonesian purchases of similar drones from China, Russia or Turkey, all of which produce advanced unmanned aircraft.

Indonesia has around 70 planes in its inventory, a mix of older Russian fighters and American-made F-16s. In February, the government reported he was interested in purchasing new F-15EX fighters from the United States, a new addition to the country’s wishlist which has for several years included French Rafale and Russian Su-35 fighter jets.

“They love to shop, but buying is another story,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group. “The new hunter requirement has been around for many years; they never actually bought a new western fighter jet, ”he added, suggesting that the government’s inability to follow through could give the Biden administration a break before trying to move on. ‘before.

“The very fact that they are buying all over the world, including for Russian material, is in itself a red flag,” he said. Indonesia has been negotiating with Russia since 2018 over the Sukhoi deal, talks that have included Jakarta swapping goods such as palm oil and other natural resources to offset the cost of planes.

Still, the Biden administration has shown interest in strengthening air wings among allies in the region and has already approved deals with the Philippines for 10 F-16C fighter jets as well as a dozen MQ-9 Reaper drones. to Australia.

However, some deals likely run counter to the administration’s desire to emphasize human rights and democratic governance as the Biden administration seeks to build nascent allies around the world.

Bilal Saab, a former Pentagon official and now director of the defense and security program at the Middle East Institute, said the new Biden review is unlikely to drastically change how or what Washington sells overseas.

“Every president has tried in one way or another to emphasize the rule of law and human rights, and to ensure that our partners use weapons responsibly,” he said. Saab said. “But none of them are really committed to this, and we pay much less attention to the institutional capacity of these partners and their ability to use and maintain these weapons effectively.”

State Department shed light on human rights violations by Indonesian security forces, including “unlawful or arbitrary killings; reports of police torture; arbitrary arrests or detentions ”; and politically motivated arrests.

President Joe Biden met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo on November 1 on the sidelines of the United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, where they “discussed ways to strengthen” relations between the two countries, according to a report. reading from the White House. No mention was made of arms sales or the promotion of human rights.

Alexander Ward contributed to this report.


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