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January 19, 2011
U.S. Sets ‘Stringent’ Drone Sales Policy

April 2015

By Jefferson Morley

The U.S. government will impose “stringent conditions” on the sale or transfer of U.S.-made military drones to other countries, the State Department announced Feb. 17, saying in its summary of the policy that the process would include a “strong presumption of denial” for licenses to export the largest and deadliest drones.

Although news stories reported the Obama administration had “opened up” the possibility of sales to “friendly and allied countries,” analysts questioned whether the policy marked a significant change from past practices on unmanned aerial systems, as drones are more formally known.

“This is not, certainly, an open door…by any means” for the sale of unmanned systems, said Joel Johnson, analyst for the Teal Group, a Washington firm that monitors the defense industry, in a March 17 interview. “From an industry perspective, the policy signals that there is a process in place that is something other than the previous ad hoc review [of proposed sales]. But it also shows [export of military drones] is still a sensitive area for the government.”

The popularity and notoriety of military drones has surged in the past decade as the U.S. government has deployed them against suspected Islamic militants in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Washington has faced harsh criticism for the resulting civilian casualties.

An MQ-9 Reaper sits at Hurlburt Field in Florida on April 24, 2014. (U.S. Air Force)

Some U.S. allies seeking to adopt the same technology have been blocked from buying U.S. drones. Washington approved sales of armed drones to the United Kingdom in 2007 and France in 2011, according to Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations. But in those years, the Obama administration rejected requests for armed unmanned systems from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, he says.

“There is a huge demand for these systems,” said Andrew Hunter, director of the Defense Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in a March 17 interview. “Everyone wants to use these systems very much the way the U.S. has been using them.”

Washington apparently wants to keep it that way. The new policy requires recipient countries to agree to four principles for “proper use,” the Feb. 17 summary says.

Purchasers will have to agree that the systems will be used “in accordance with international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law.” They will have to assure the United States that the drones will be deployed “only when there is a lawful basis for use of force under international law, such as national self-defense.” In addition, recipients will have to guarantee that the drones are not used to “conduct unlawful surveillance or use unlawful force against their domestic population.” Finally, drone users will have to agree to require technical and doctrinal training “to reduce the risk of unintended injury or damage.”

The U.S. government itself might not meet those criteria, more than one critic noted. “There are many serious concerns about how the US currently interprets ‘national self-defense,’” observed Sarah Knuckey, an associate clinical professor of law at Columbia Law School in a post for the Just Security blog.

The new policy cites the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which mandates a “strong presumption of denial” for the transfer of the largest unmanned aerial systems that carry missiles. The MTCR, a nonbinding agreement of 34 countries that has been developed since the 1980s to regulate the ballistic missile trade, also covers slower-moving drones, according to the State Department. The MTCR states that international transfers of unmanned systems with a range of more than 300 kilometers and a payload of more than 500 kilograms should be approved only on “rare occasions.”

“We’re going to have to watch the next half dozen sales [of armed drones] to know what the policy means in practice,” said the Teal Group’s Johnson.

One possible customer under the new policy is the Netherlands. On Feb. 6, the State Department approved the Dutch government’s request for approval of the $339 million purchase of four Predator-B drones and associated equipment and training from General Atomics, a San Diego firm. Described as “arms-capable,” these drones could be weaponized without difficulty, according to a General Atomics spokeswoman. Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert told Cabinet colleagues March 6 that the Netherlands currently does not need to arm the drones, but she did not rule out the possibility, according to NL Times, a Dutch news site..

Under the new policy, the sale or transfer of a U.S.-made weaponized drone must advance four goals. It must enhance “the operational capabilities and capacity of trusted partner nations” and increase “US interoperability with these partners for coalition operations.” Any export of armed drones also must ensure “responsible use” and ease “stress on US force structure.”

“What happens if a country doesn’t adhere?” asked Rachel Stohl of the nonpartisan Stimson Center in a March 18 interview. “We don’t know. They’ve codified what was an ad hoc process, but it would be nice to know more.”