The United States will authorize for the first time the export of armed drones to allied nations, according to media reports. The new policy has been announced this Tuesday. The exact rules will remain classified but, according to Reuters, requests by foreign governments will be examined on a case by case basis and allied states must agree to certain “end use assurances.”
States interesting in purchasing U.S. armed drones have to agree to a set of “proper use” principles and, according to an unclassified summary of the policy, not use UAVs “to conduct unlawful surveillance or [for] unlawful force against their domestic populations.” So far, the United States has only exported lethal drones to the United Kingdom. Other allies, such as France and Italy, have purchased unarmed U.S. drones in the last few years, but have not been provided with weapons.
“The technology is here to stay. It’s to our benefit to have certain allies and partners equipped appropriately,” summarized a senior State Department official the rationale behind the decision. In the past, the State Department in particular has been worried that an easing of export restrictions would weaken broader non-proliferation regimes.
The Washington Post notes that one factor for easing restrictions is the shortage of U.S. drone pilots and other specialists needed to conduct operations: “Greater drone capability for U.S. allies also could ease the high demand for U.S. surveillance flights, particularly in the Middle East.”
The Washington Post also reports that companies interested in exporting armed UAVs, such as the Reaper and Predator combat drones, will still be subject to “an unconditional strong presumption of denial,” i.e. the assumption that countries will not export Category I drones (systems which exceed a range of 300 kilometers and a payload of 500 kilograms), as outlined in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), except in highly unusual circumstances.
A June 2014 report by the Stimson Center’s Drone Task Force, noted on this subject that, “The U.S. government should also inquire into the broader non-proliferation effect of the MTCR Category I presumption of denial. The U.S. government should determine whether, in the long run, the presumption remains a useful non-proliferation tool or inadvertently fosters the growth of foreign UAV manufacturing capability by suppressing the participation of U.S. industry in the global MTCR Category I UAV market.” However, no further details on the exact policy governing the sales of Category I drones have been made publicly available as of now.
Today, a State Department official merely provided a broad rationale behind the loosening of restrictions to Reuters: “The new policy ensures appropriate participation for U.S. industry in the emerging commercial UAS [unmanned aerial systems] market, which will contribute to the health of the U.S. industrial base, and thus to U.S. national security, which includes economic security. As with any other sale, all UAS sales will continue to be reviewed for human rights, regional power balance, and other implications.”