What You Need to Know About Drone Exports

Credit: Dan Gettinger

By Dan Gettinger

On February 17, the United States announced that it will loosen restrictions on the sale of armed drones to foreign nations. The policy, which was outlined in a statement by the Department of State, establishes new rules for the export of drones and makes it easier for U.S. companies to sell armed drones overseas. The move comes at a time when many countries are producing or have announced their intention to produce drones of their own. As this drone crash in Nigeria demonstrates, drones from Europe, Israel, and China are quickly proliferating around the world. From the perspective of the Obama administration, the pace of acquisitions of drones by foreign actors threatens to leave American drone manufacturers behind as the value and sophistication of this technology rises. Here is what you need to know about drone exports:


  • The Arms Export Control Act (AECA) establishes the principles that govern the export of American arms, technical data for weapons, or defense-related services to foreign nations. It invests the President with the authority to oversee all exports and to ensure that those exports are consistent with American foreign policy objectives. The 1976 act authorizes the transfer of weapons to “friendly countries,” so long as those countries can meet certain standards.
  • The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) set in place the export regulations for weapons to ensure that American companies are complying with the restrictions and requirements set forth in the AECA. Under the ITAR, any American citizen who wishes to sell weapons or defense services to a foreign buyer must obtain authorization from the Department of State.
  • On January 15, 2014, the Obama administration released Presidential Policy Directive 27 (PPD-27), an update to the United States Conventional Arms Transfer Policy that is meant to ensure that American arms exports do not undermine U.S. policy. PPD-27 replaced a similar 1995 statement on weapons transfers and establishes a set of criteria that each transfer must meet. Read On:United States Releases New Arms Transfer Policy” – Rachel Stohl // Stimson Center
  • The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is a voluntary international partnership established in 1987 of 34 countries including the United States. The MTCR establishes that there will be a “presumption to deny” exports of missiles or unmanned aerial vehicles that have a range of at least 300 km and are capable of carrying a payload of at least 500 kg. The partnership isn’t necessarily an international ban on the export or use of these systems by foreign nations; the MTCR strives for a set of international guidelines regarding the export of missiles and drones. Read On: MTCR Annex Handbook
  • The Department of State Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC) is charged with reviewing the permanent sale or export of defense articles and services, including all the items listed on the U.S. Munitions List. The DDTC seeks to ensure that each export complies with existing American and international standards, and also meets U.S. foreign policy and national security objectives. The DDTC processes around 3,500 requests each month.
  • In July 2009, John Roth, a former professor at the University of Tennessee, was sentenced to 48 months in prison for violating the Arms Export Control Act. Roth was developing plasma actuators for drones, a technology intended to make the wings of unmanned aircraft more aerodynamic, and was convicted of selling the technical data for this and other technologies to China.

The New Policy on Drone Exports

Last week, the State Department laid out the new principles and rules that will govern drone sales. Exports of drones will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and, in accordance with existing laws, drones will only be sold to “friendly nations.” The full text of the policy is classified.

  • The new policy establishes controls for the export of drones and sets in place principles on how drones may be used by the foreign buyer. The controls are designed to meet existing export standards, such as the Arms Control Act and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. The principles established by the DoS are intended to ensure that a potential foreign buyer will only use drones in ways that are lawful.
  • The most sought after drones—the Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk—fall under Category 1 of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The new policy acknowledges that some UAVs exceed the 300 km range and 500 kg payload requirements that qualify Category 1 systems. In accordance with the MTCR, the State Department assures that exports of these systems will be met with a “strong presumption of denial,” except in “rare occasions.” Essentially, exports of these systems will likely only be approved if the buyer is a close ally and if that ally can prove that these systems will be used to further a foreign policy objective like combating terrorism.

The State Department’s end user agreement requires signatories to comply with these principles:

  1. Recipients are to use these systems in accordance with international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, as applicable.
  2. Armed UASs and strike enabling technologies are to be used in operations involving the use of force only when there is a lawful basis for use of force under international law, such as national self-defense.
  3. Recipients are not to use UASs to conduct unlawful surveillance or use unlawful force against their domestic populations.
  4. As appropriate, recipients shall provide UAS operators technical and doctrinal training on the use of these systems to reduce the risk of unintended injury or damage

The State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls monitors a portion of all weapons transfers to make sure that they fulfill the end user agreement. Each year, the DDTC asks American diplomats at U.S. Embassies to check up on some of the transfers and issues a report to Congress on “Blue Lantern” end use monitoring. In FY 2013, out of the 1,029 Blue Lantern checks, 194 (19 percent) were deemed unfavorable because “the findings of fact were not consistent with information in the license application request.” The most common reasons for an unfavorable rating were because the “foreign party deemed unreliable recipient” of American weapons or because there was an unauthorized transfer of the weapons from the original recipient to a third-party.

The Buyers

The United Kingdom is the only foreign nation that currently flies armed U.S.-made drones. Other NATO allies like France and Italy operate Predator and Reaper drones for reconnaissance and surveillance missions. The new export rules would allow these nations and other allies to to arm American-made drones with weapons. The number of potential buyers of American drones is limited due to the substantial communication infrastructure required to operate drones and the relationship between foreign buyers and the United States.

  • Italy has been flying Predator drones since 2004 and purchased four Reapers in 2008. In May 2012, the Obama administration announced that it planned to arm Italy’s existing fleet of Reaper drones. Several lawmakers, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, criticized the plan, arguing against the proliferation of this technology. In 2013, the Reapers were still not armed, and Italy signalled its intention to turn to Israel for help developing an armed drone. The new export rules will likely finally clear the way for armed Italian Reapers.
  • Turkey has also expressed interest in arming its fleet of Predator drones. While the Obama administration reportedly supported Turkey’s request, there was limited support in Congress for the move, considering that the armed drones would likely be used against Kurdish bases in the mountainous southeast. Turkey has purchased Heron drones from Israel and has worked with Israeli companies to develop an indigenous drone called the Anka. Read On: The Trouble with Turkey’s Drones” – Aaron Stein // War on the Rocks
  • In 2013, General Atomics won a $220 million contract from the United Arab Emirates for an unspecified number of unarmed Predator XP drones. The new export rules will allow General Atomics to deliver the armed drones by 2016; it will be the first sale of drones to a non-NATO ally. Teal Group, a research and analysis corporation, estimates that the market for drones in the Gulf will grow to $4.5 billion by 2023.
  • Australia has signalled its intention to invest heavily in American-made drones. On February 22, 2015, Australian defense officials acknowledged that Australian airmen were training in the United States to fly the MQ-9 Reaper. In March 2014, Australia announced that it planned to purchase several MQ-4C Triton surveillance drones. Last month, the Australian Navy announced that it wants to help develop the Triton, the maritime version of the Global Hawk.
  • On February 6, 2015, the State Department approved the sale of four MQ-9 Reapers to the Netherlands for $339 million. Although the Reapers can be armed, it does not appear as though the Dutch military plans on using the drones for anything other than surveillance and reconnaissance.

Commentary and Analysis

The issue of drone proliferation has long invited disagreement and, indeed, the new rules for selling armed drones have sparked a vigorous debate. Some remark that the United States is hardly a case study of best practices when it comes to the use of armed drones. Others argue that loosened export restrictions allow American companies to maintain their competitive advantage in drone technology.

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