20 Feb 2015

Soon on sale in your country: US armed drones

The US is to export armed drones to sell to its military allies around the world, a move that has been welcomed by the arms industry but provoked outrage among human rights campaigners.

Picture: Pre-flight checks on a US Predator drone performed at a base in Indian Springs, Nevada, USA.

The State Department has announced it would permit exports of unmanned aerial vehicles to allies around the world under strict trading conditions.

A memo released on Tuesday set out the terms of the deal. The move has been welcomed by US armed companies looking to expand global sales – and is thought to come after heavy lobbying by the arms industry to loosen strict export curbs.

But human rights groups are outraged. Jennifer Gibson an attorney at Reprieve called the safeguards “far from sufficient”.

“What does the US believe constitutes ‘proper use’?” she asked. “And how is it defining ‘international law’? US drone strikes have killed thousands of civilians, including women and children, in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan. Will those countries it’s now exporting to be allowed to do the same?”

Chris Nineham, vice-chairman of Stop the War called the move an “irresponsible decision” from a country that was becoming more “aggressive and more militarised”.

Confronting enemies

One of the key resources in President Obama’s foreign policy, the use of drones against Islamist targets in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, have been shrouded in controversy. To many, particularly those living in the countries most affected, the strikes have been seen as an immoral way for America to confront its enemies, particularly as they have been known to incur civilian casualties.

But President Obama has remained loyal to their use. Richard Reeve, the director of sustainable security at Oxford Research Group, said America’s decision to open up trade deals was driven by an economic imperative.

“There was once a time that drones were purely a product of the US and Israel – but that has changed in the last half decade,” he told Channel 4 News.

“Now China has this technology and is exporting it worldwide, UAE is investing in production while Turkey, Iran and India are known to be developing their own systems. The US knows that if it doesn’t start exporting this technology, others will.”

The new policy will make it easier for America’s closest allies to buy armed drones, while maintaining stringent controls on the overall technology, US officials said. But there are concerns over the technology being sold on the black market or potentially falling into the wrong hands.

How the deal would work

Under the new export legislation the United States would assess on a case-by-case basis under the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy. Countries applying to buy drones would be subjected to a “strong presumption of denial”, meaning that they would have to make a strong case for needing the weapons.

They would need to agree to a set of “proper use” principles set out by America, which entail using them for national defence or according to international law. The US would also retain the right to monitor the buyer country’s use of the drones after sale, referred to in the state department document as “end-use monitoring” and “additional security conditions”.

They cannot use the drones to carry out “unlawful surveillance or use unlawful force against their domestic populations”.

Yet many believe that these are only precautions and not absolute safeguards. “Drones are no more deadly than manned systems and dependent entirely on who is operating them,” Mr Reeve added.

“Countries such as Saudi Arabia have being buying some of the deadliest and most sophisticated systems from the US for years. Many – such as the Strike Eagle Aircraft, Eurofighter Pythons and F35s – have the potential to be as deadly.”

Britain is the country other than the US flying armed US drones, and also has 12 Reapers that have been used in Afghanistan and Iraq. France and Italy fly Reaper surveillance drones. A State Department official said previous requests for armed drones from Italy and Turkey would be reviewed in light of the new policy.