US to allow armed drone exports

The US has announced it will begin allowing sales of armed drones to some friendly and allied countries.

Only the UK has been allowed to purchase armed unmanned aircraft. Other countries have unarmed craft.

Countries purchasing drones must sign agreements they will only be used for military campaigns and the US will review how the country is complying.

The change comes amid China exporting drones from its own unmanned programme to at least nine countries.

In the newly published policy, the state department did not specify which countries would be considered for armed drone sales, but unnamed officials told US media previous requests by Italy and Turkey would be reconsidered.

US lawmakers are also currently considering selling unarmed Predator drones to the United Arab Emirates.

But certain drones – with a range of 300km (186 miles) and carrying a payload of 500kg (1,100lb) – will still be barred from export except in highly unusual circumstances.

Armed drones have been crucial to the US counter-terrorism strategy in the US, including killing targets from al-Qaeda and other militant groups but have been criticised for killing civilians.

Pakistan Army officers are attended by a Chinese representative as they take a closer look at the 'Yi Long' drone (in background) of China Aviation Industry Corporation (AVIC) during the 9th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai on November 13, 2012

Pakistani Army officers look at a Chinese-made drone – China has sold drones to several countries

The policy change comes at the end of a two-year review. The state department says it is allowing sales of armed drones to make sure the aircraft are being used legally and responsibly.

“The technology is here to stay,” an anonymous State Department official told The Washington Post. “It’s to our benefit to have certain allies and partners equipped appropriately.”

But there has been criticism from some in Congress of sales to even close allies over concerns about intelligence expertise and human rights records.

And defence officials have struggled to keep up with military commanders’ requests for using drones, and have struggled to move drones where needed for joint missions with allies.

Among the requirements for sale would be an agreement requiring the recipient to use drones in accordance with international law and to not use the aircraft “to conduct unlawful surveillance or use unlawful force against their domestic populations”.