US Opens Up Sales of Armed Drones to Allies


The US State Department announced Tuesday new rules for how and when it may sell armed drones to its allies.

The move comes at a time when the Obama administration is placing a high priority on training and equipping its allies —in particular its NATO partners — to assume more of a role in regional stability, humanitarian and counterterrorism operations.

The full scope of the changes to US policy remain somewhat murky, since the full results of an internal review remain classified. But the State Department released a statement Tuesday outlining some of the major thrusts of the new policy.

The new export policy will place strict conditions on the sale or transfer of armed drones and pledges to undertake new sales only when they will enhance "the operational capabilities and capacity of trusted partner nations, increasing U.S. interoperability with these partners for coalition operations, ensuring responsible use of these systems, and easing the stress on U.S. force structure for these capabilities," the State Department said in a statement.

The changes to the policy come out of a broader review that include plans to work with allies to help shape international standards for the sale, transfer and use of drones, officials at the State Dept. said on Tuesday.

The policy will also include safeguards against improper use through end-use monitoring to ensure that "human rights, regional power balance, and other" standards remain in place, an official said.

Earlier this month, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency and the State Department announced a potential $340 million sale of four MQ-9 Reapers to the Netherlands. While there were no weapons included in the proposed agreement, Reaper sales were approved for sale to the UK, Italy and France. Only the drones for the UK were armed.

The new policies "is an acknowledgement of the problems the administration has had in trying to manage UAS exports" said Remy Nathan, vice president of international affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association.

The sales will also make sure there is "appropriate participation for US industry in the emerging commercial UAS market, which will contribute to the health of the US industrial base, and thus to US national security which includes economic security," the department said.

"There's also an acknowledgment that there is a national security cost in not allowing the transfers to go through" to allies, Nathan said, since any mismatch in aerial surveillance or strike capability between the Washington and its allies means that the US fleet becomes to global go-to force for sensitive missions, as opposed to a broader burden-sharing.

From a US defense industry perspective, the new rules would also appear to make it somewhat easier to make the case for such drone sales.

Until now, every time a potential sale would be pitched to the US government, industry would "have to build an argument from scratch" about why such a sale would fit within existing laws and guidelines, Nathan added.

Now, "we're putting this all down on paper up front and saying everything has to go through this process the same way, and that's a marked improvement."

The State Department said the buyer in any future sale will have to agree to a list of conditions before the sale goes through, including end-use monitoring by US agencies, a guarantee that they are to be used "in operations involving the use of force only when there is a lawful basis for use of force under international law, such as national self-defense" and an assurance that they are not to be used "to conduct unlawful surveillance or use unlawful force against their domestic populations."

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