(Bloomberg) — The U.S. has approved its first policy for selling armed drones to allies, the State Department said.
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.” It also seeks to impose restrictions on purchasers concerning how the unmanned systems can be used, as well as provisions for the U.S. to monitor compliance.
“The United States is committed to stringent standards for the sale, transfer, and subsequent use of U.S.-origin military” drones, the department said in an e-mailed statement on Tuesday.
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While there’s growing international interest in unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, other countries and human-rights groups have criticized the U.S. 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 U.S.-origin UAS are responsible and consistent with U.S. national security and foreign policy interests, including economic security, as well as with U.S. values and international standards,” according to the State Department.
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Armed Predator and Reaper drones are made by closely held General Atomics based in San Diego. Unarmed military drones include the Global Hawk made by Falls Church, Virginia-based Northrop Grumman Corp.
The annual global value of drone production for military use will climb steadily to $2.3 billion in 2023 from about $942 million in 2014, market intelligence firm Forecast International of Newtown, Connecticut, said in an April 2014 report.
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The Aviation Industry Corporation of China “is expected to account for the lion’s share ($5.76 billion) of the 10-year market value, based on production of hundreds of pricey UAVs, nearly all earmarked for Chinese consumption,” according to the report, referring to unmanned aerial vehicles. “Northrop Grumman, builder of the U.S. Air Force’s expensive RQ-4B Global Hawk and the U.S. Navy’s MQ-4C Triton, is next in line with forecast production worth $2.58 billion.”
An unarmed “XP” version of the Predator has been approved by the State Department for sale to the United Arab Emirates. Congress last month approved an informal State Department notification of a direct sale to the U.A.E. by General Atomics. Congress must approve a formal notification before the sale can proceed.
The move on drone exports follows the announcement by the Federal Aviation Administration over the weekend of rules permitting businesses in the U.S. to use small unmanned aircraft under strict limits, including that they must be flown at low altitudes by a person with an FAA certificate and only within sight of the operator.
The State Department said its new safeguards will require that each recipient nation agree to assurances that drones will be used in accordance with international law, including international humanitarian law and international human-rights standards.
Recipients can’t use military drones to conduct unlawful surveillance or use unlawful force against their own populations, according to State Department officials who provided information under rules requiring anonymity.
The new export guidelines are part of a broader policy review by the U.S., which includes plans to work with other countries to shape international standards for the sale, transfer, and subsequent use of military drones.
“I like these principles for proper use in terms of establishing global norms and setting an important precedent,” said Rachel Stohl, a senior associate at the Stimson Center, a Washington policy organization on global security issues. “I’m not sure how realistic it will be that end users will sign onto those principles.”
The systems were already “quite restricted” under U.S. export policy, said Stohl, who directed a Stimson Center task force on U.S. drone policy last year. “To me, this is not a loosening at all, it’s very much a re-emphasizing of existing U.S. conventional arms-transfer policies, but saying this is a special category that requires additional safeguards, that this technology is inherently different. To me the bar is higher than it was before.”
The new U.S. guidelines build on the U.S. Conventional Arms Transfer Policy and are consistent with the requirements of the Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act, which govern all U.S. military transfers, according to the State Department.
One restriction on international trade in military drones is a 1987 arms-control accord known as the Missile Technology Control Regime, which was developed to curtail transfers of unmanned systems that could carry nuclear weapons. The accord, signed by the U.S., Russia and 32 other nations, applies to military and commercial systems with a range of at least 300 kilometers (186 miles) and capable of carrying a payload of more than 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds), which could mean sensors on unarmed drones.
Under that accord, such systems are given a “strong presumption of denial” for export, though such sales may be permitted if justified on “rare occasions.” China isn’t a signatory, but has agree to abide by the basic accord.
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