US approves sales of armed drones

The state department said it would allow exports of lethal US military drones under strict conditions, including that recipient nations must agree to certain 'end-use assurances'.

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WASHINGTON // The US has approved its first policy for selling armed drones to allies.

The new guidelines set out procedures for both commercial and military drone exports, which the department said it will assess on a “case-by-case basis” including “armed systems”, said the US state department on Tuesday.

The state department said it would allow exports of lethal US military drones under strict conditions, including that sales must be made through government programmes and that recipient nations must agree to certain “end-use assurances”.

It also seeks to impose restrictions on purchasers concerning how the unmanned systems can be used, as well as provisions for the US to monitor compliance.

“The United States is committed to stringent standards for the sale, transfer, and subsequent use of US-origin military” drones, said the department.

While there’s growing international interest in unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, other countries and human-rights groups have criticised the US for its increased use of them as weapons under president Barack Obama amid civilian casualties.

“As other nations begin to employ military UAS more regularly and as the nascent commercial UAS market emerges, the United States has a responsibility to ensure that sales, transfers, and subsequent use of all US-origin UAS are responsible and consistent with US national security and foreign policy interests, including economic security, as well as with US values and international standards,” said the state department.

The policy, the details of which are classified, comes after a two-year review amid growing demand from US allies for the new breed of weapons that have played a key role in US military action in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.

The change also follows stern warnings by top US officials about rapid advances in weapons technology by China, Russia and other potential foes, including unmanned systems.

The new policy will make it easier for America’s closest allies to buy armed drones, while maintaining stringent controls on the overall technology, US officials said.

Britain is the only country now flying armed US drones, but France and Italy fly Reaper surveillance drones. A state department official said previous requests for armed drones from Italy and Turkey would be reviewed in light of the new policy.

Even sales of surveillance drones could help US allies in the Middle East fight ISIL militants. US lawmakers are currently considering the sale of unarmed Predator drones to the UAE, which has played a key role in airstrikes on ISIL sites in recent weeks.

It could help American companies boost sales of military and commercial drones in an increasingly competitive global market.

Privately held General Atomics, maker of the Predator and Reaper drones, Northrop Grumman, Textron and other arms makers have been urging Washington for years to loosen strict export curbs, which they say have caused them to lose orders to Israel and others in the growing market.

Ideally, the policy would help industry better understand the current complex review process for drone exports, said Remy Nathan, vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association. He said AIA had asked for a classified briefing on the policy.

The shift came just days after US aviation regulators proposed rules on Sunday that would lift some restrictions on drone use for commercial purposes, but would still limit activities such as inspections of pipelines.

* Bloomberg and Reuters