Lawmakers Push White House to Lend Drones to Jordan

[11-03-2015 01:23 PM]

Ammon News - AMMONNEWS - Members of Congress are pushing the Obama administration to embrace a plan to lend older-model, surplus drones to Jordan for the fight against the Islamic State extremist group.

In a Republican-led letter to the White House, 23 House members said Monday that Jordan should be allowed to borrow U.S. Air Force-owned MQ-1 Predator drones.

“Under this proposal,” the letter said, “Jordanian pilots would fly the operational missions, but the assets themselves would remain under the ownership of the Air Force.”

The Air Force is currently replacing its MQ-1 fleet with the more advanced MQ-9 Reapers, which are more heavily armed. As a result, a portion of the fleet of older Predators is currently not in use, and those drones aren’t considered critical to U.S. missions, according to a Congressional official.

Predators typically carry two Hellfire missiles. A congressional official said that under the plan, the U.S. would loan three or four Predators to Jordan. That would be enough drones to keep at least one aloft around the clock.

Jordan is an active member of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and has intensified its involvement after a Jordanian pilot captured by the extremist group was burned to death while locked in a cage.

In meetings with members of Congress, Jordan has requested clearance to purchase armed and unarmed drones from General Atomics.

The Obama administration has loosened the rules for selling armed drones to allied nations, but the U.S. hasn’t given Jordan an export license to buy Predators. Lending the drones to Jordan, according to Congressional officials, would get around concerns about the misuse of the Predators because the Air Force would effectively maintain a veto over how Amman uses them.

Jordanian officials declined to comment on their request for drones or the proposal to lend drones to them. General Atomics, maker of the Predator drone, also declined to comment.

The White House referred questions to the State Department. State Department officials said they wouldn’t comment on any proposed arm sales or transfer. But they said the new policy sets out a framework for evaluating requests.

Defense officials questioned whether the U.S. has many surplus Predators available. Many of the drones not currently in use are part of the military’s so-called surge capability, held in reserve for emergencies. The Air Force holds about 20 drones as part of its surge capability.

The U.S. Air Force has a shortage of drone pilots, making it difficult for the U.S. to fly the surplus predators themselves. Jordanian pilots, trained to fly F-16 fighters, could be relatively easily retrained to fly the drones, according to congressional officials. A senior defense official said, however, that there are no intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance trainers to spare.

“We are using every ISR pilot out there,” the official said.

Jordanian fighter planes have mostly struck fixed targets in Syria, rather than moving vehicles or other so-called dynamic targets. Acquiring their own drones could expand the range of targets Jordanian forces could strike.

General Atomics would handle the maintenance, launch and recovery of the planes, according to the proposal. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R., Calif.), whose district is near the California headquarters of General Atomics, took the lead in drafting the letter and has been pushing the administration to provide drones for Jordan.

In all 22 Republicans signed the letter. Rep. Scott Peters (D., Calif), whose district includes General Atomics headquarters, was the only Democrat to sign the letter.

In a statement, Mr. Hunter said the proposal would enable Jordan to get drones more quickly than it could through a purchase agreement. Because of high demand for unmanned aircraft, the wait time to purchase a new drone can be months long, Mr. Hunter said.

“Jordan can start hitting ISIS tomorrow with greater intensity and effectiveness simply by providing them use of non-mission-critical assets in the region or elsewhere,” Mr. Hunter said.

The letter said if Jordan is not allowed to acquire American drones, it has signaled its interest to buy aircraft from China. If Jordan were to acquire drones from China, the letter said, it would hurt the U.S defense industry, open a new market for Beijing, and make it more difficult for the U.S. and Jordan to operate side-by-side in the fight against the Islamic State.

“We risk Jordan going elsewhere for the capability—and that creates a whole new set of problems that conflict with our own security interests,” Mr. Hunter said.

*Wall Street Journal

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