The Obama administration will permit the widespread export of armed drones for the first time, a step toward providing allied nations with weapons that have become a cornerstone of U.S. counterterrorism strategy but whose remotely controlled power to kill is intensely controversial.
But in a reflection of the sensitivity surrounding sales of the lethal technology to allied countries, some of which have troubling records on human rights and political freedoms, the new policy lays out principles that foreign governments must embrace to receive the aircraft.
“The technology is here to stay,” said a senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the regulations. “It’s to our benefit to have certain allies and partners equipped appropriately.”
The new policy is a delicate balancing act for the Obama White House, which has sought to elevate human rights in its foreign policy but also has employed drone strikes like no other government in history. The strikes, conducted by the Pentagon and the CIA, have become a central part of U.S. efforts against militants in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
Globally, a few countries — including the United States, Israel and China — already operate their own armed drones.
To date, U.S. officials say, the United States has sold its armed drones only to Britain. Unarmed military drones, used primarily for intelligence, have been sold to a larger number of countries, including NATO allies such as France and Italy.
Under the new rules, which remain classified, foreign governments’ requests for drones will be examined on a case-by-case basis, officials said. In addition to regulations governing all military sales, the sale of armed drones would be subject to Cold War-era rules establishing a “strong presumption of denial,” meaning that foreign governments would have to make a strong case for acquiring the aircraft.
They also would have to agree to a set of “proper use” principles created by the United States, promising to use the drones for national defense or other situations in which force is permitted by international law. The drones are not to be used “to conduct unlawful surveillance or [for] unlawful force against their domestic populations,” an unclassified summary of the new policy said.
“If you fall back on what our objective is, it’s really more than anything to provide an extra level of scrutiny with respect to these transfers,” the official said.
Foreign governments also will have to accept potential U.S. monitoring of how the drones are used.
The new policy covers both armed and unarmed drones and builds on the Obama administration’s update last year to rules on conventional weapons transfers, which emphasize human rights protections in decisions about arms sales.
The policy may nevertheless heighten concerns among rights groups, which maintain that the remote strikes have killed civilians without proper U.S. accountability.
The policy also may face some opposition in Congress. Like all major weapons sales, drone exports above a certain dollar value would be subject to congressional notification, giving lawmakers an opportunity to hold up some if they have concerns.
In 2012, a State Department plan to arm U.S.-made drones owned by Italy drew objections from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
“Despite the best intentions, we will not be able to guarantee that purchasers of U.S. UAVs [drones] will be able to develop the same level of intelligence to discriminate between potential targets, take the same level of care to limit the number of innocent civilians killed, or follow our restrictions against assassination,” Feinstein wrote in a letter to then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the new guidelines fill a gap in U.S. policy, given the growing global reliance on drones for military, surveillance and law enforcement purposes.
“The important thing to know with armed drones is that based on America’s record, they lower the threshold for when countries use armed force,” Zenko said. “And when you have that lower threshold, it can change the calculus of countries.”
There is likely to be additional congressional scrutiny in the wake of the Islamic State’s seizure of much of Iraq this summer, and with it millions of dollars in U.S.-made military equipment that had been provided to Iraqi security forces.
The United States has long taken a secretive approach to its use of drone strikes. In 2013, President Obama nudged the drone program partly out of the shadows when he called the strikes an effective tool when foreign governments cannot or will not address militancy within their borders.
A green light to sell drones overseas would help U.S. firms gain a larger foothold in the global drone market that Steve Zaloga, a senior analyst at the Teal Group Corp., an aerospace research firm, said is now worth more than $6 billion a year. The new policy also covers the export of commercial drones. China and Israel are actively promoting their drones to foreign buyers.
Zaloga said drones commonly used by the U.S. military, such as the Reaper, can cost $10 million to $15 million.
Officials said it would take months, but not years, to approve requests.
Greater drone capability for U.S. allies also could ease the high demand for U.S. surveillance flights, particularly in the Middle East. The Air Force is grappling with a shortage of drone pilots and other military specialists needed to run drone operations.
Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.