American military drones are returning to the skies above Iraq more than five months after U.S. troops withdrew from the country.
But this time, the drones will be operated by members of the Iraqi navy and will provide overwatch for the country’s oil platforms off its southern coast, U.S. officials in Baghdad said Wednesday.
The deal being will cover the sale of roughly 12 of the U.S. Navy’s Scan Eagle unmanned drones, a State Department official told The Hill on Monday.
The drones will be equipped with surveillance packages that will allow the aircraft to conduct day and night missions, the official said on the condition of anonymity.
The official ruled out any possibility of arming the Scan Eagles for offensive operations by the Iraqi military, noting it was “not even feasible” to arm the drone.
The Iraqi military already owns and operates a number of Scan Eagle drone to support its ongoing security operations. The biggest issue will be training Iraqi sailors to operate the aircraft on the open sea, the official said.
Scan Eagle, along with the Navy’s helicopter-like Fire Scout drone, are much smaller and have a much shorter flight range than other unmanned aircraft in the service’s arsenal.
Both are designed to operate off the decks of U.S. and now Iraqi warships often miles away from land.
The Scan Eagles will be used to monitor oil platforms, known as offshore export terminals in the Persian Gulf, according to U.S. officials from the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq.
The terminals are used to move millions of barrels of Iraqi crude oil from the country’s inland oilfields to commercial tanker ships in the Persian Gulf.
The new drones are expected to be operational by the end of this year.
Once the new drones hit the skies above the Gulf, Iraq will join the slew of foreign countries looking to use U.S. drone technology to augment their national security needs.
Kuwait, Pakistan and the Netherlands are all considering buying the Scan Eagle drone for their militaries, according to Navy officials. Australia and Japan are reportedly in talks with the Air Force about adding Global Hawk unmanned aircraft to their arsenals.
American defense firms have been more than happy to oblige the increasing international appetite for unmanned technologies, especially with tightening U.S. defense budgets expected over the next decade.
However, U.S. law governing exports of military hardware is hindering the ability of those defense firms to open up foreign markets.
Last August, Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush said that U.S. defense firms were unrivaled in the field of military unmanned technologies and have reaped the benefits both at home and abroad.
But as countries such as China and Iran continue to refine their own unmanned aircraft, that era of U.S. dominance in the field of unmanned weapons technologies could be coming to a close, Bush warned at the time.
The White House needs to loosen its export controls, particularly on unmanned systems, if America wants to retain its edge in the field. The Obama administration has already taken steps in that effort.
That same month, administration officials unveiled a new export reform strategy that is designed to double military and commercial exports over the next five years.
The strategy includes reducing the list of what sensitive military hardware cannot be sent overseas. The plan will also outline new parameters for information technology systems.
Finally, all military and commercial exports will be overseen by a single licensing agency and export enforcement coordination center, according to the White House.