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The US Has Issued New Rules For the Foreign Sale of Military Drones

The new policies say foreign governments must use their American-made drones in accordance with international law and not to attack their own citizens.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The United States has codified how it wants to export drone warfare to the rest of the world.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama announced new rules for the sale of military Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) to America's allies. While the US has sold armed drones to Britain and unarmed intelligence-gathering drones to NATO allies like France, Italy, and others in recent years, these new rules would force foreign buyers of General Atomics' Predators and Reapers, Northrup Grumman's Global Hawks, as well as other drones to adopt a set of principals before they deploy the remote-controlled aircraft into the field.


"As the most active user of military UAS, and as an increasing number of nations are acquiring and employing UASs to support a range of missions, the United States has an interest in ensuring that these systems are used lawfully and responsibly," a State Department fact sheet on the new policy said. The full text of the policy is classified.

The fact sheet says the US government will judge each request for drone sales on a case-by-case basis. But, when the sales are allowed, the new rules say foreign buyers must use their American-made drones in accordance with international law and only when the use of force is lawful, like for self-defense. The rules would also prohibit foreign governments from using American drones for unlawful surveillance or to attack their own citizens.

Lastly, the rules require governments to train drone pilots to avoid unintended casualties, a measure that appears to be aimed at addressing criticism of drone warfare.

While the US has increasingly used drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere to inexpensively launch lethal strikes against thousands of terrorists, American drones have also allegedly killed hundreds of innocent civilians, too, according to the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

News accounts of drones bombing weddings and other family gatherings have led critics to say the strikes are cultivating a new generation of militants who despise the US, rather then the intended result of quashing terror. The impersonal nature of drone warfare — with pilots based thousands of miles away as they kill brides, grooms, and children without warning — further fuels perceptions of the US military as heartless and aloof.


Rachel Stohl, a senior associate at the nonpartisan Stimson Center think tank, notes that the new rules ironically impose stronger requirements on foreign governments than the US places on itself.

"The US has to make clear how its own use of UAS is abiding by its own principles," she told VICE News.

Stohl is also eager to see whether or not other nations will accept or implement the new rules.

"I don't think you'll have all countries agree to abide to all those principles, or they'll say they will abide by them and then won't," she said.

Still, in the interests of transparency, Stohl was happy the State Department issued the rules. In June, the Stimson Center released an 81-page report that said the US needs to rethink its drone strategy in light of the criticism against the aircraft, and to dispel myths about UAS warfare — such as claims that drone pilots are disconnected from the battlefield and don't suffer from post-traumatic stress like other soldiers.

The Washington Post notes that the new policy will help American companies sell drones at a time when China and Israel are often beating them in the $6 billion UAS market. Leaders in China are especially notorious for unscrupulously selling arms to the highest bidders. A recent RAND report found that India, Iran, Russia, Taiwan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates are also developing drones, too. Officials told the Post the new policies could potentially allow the US to ship armed drones to other countries by the end of 2014.

This rapid growth of the drone market in recent years makes it high time for the US to release the rules, Stohl said.

"The rest of the world and the technology itself is moving faster than the US," she said. "The genie is a little out of the bottle here."

Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr