This week the United States announced that, for the first time, it will sell armed drones to select allied nations. Over the past decade, drones have become something of a poster child for America's war on terror. While selling Predators and Reapers to other countries might raise a few eyebrows, the State Department announcement goes to great lengths to clarify sharing this technology doesn't carry with it any major risk.
To ensure that American-made drones sold to other countries don't end up serving nefarious purposes, the State Department has taken two steps beyond those normal for international weapons sales. The first is enhanced controls on drone exports, which includes "end-use monitoring," a jargon-y phrase that means the U.S. is going to make sure the drones are being used how the U.S. wants, and not for other purposes.
The second remarkable step is that companies buying armed drones from the U.S. will have to agree to a set of four principles. Those principles are:
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 and other advanced UAS [unmanned aerial system] 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 military UAS to conduct unlawful surveillance or use unlawful force against their domestic populations; and
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.
It's a lofty goal, but enforcing the agreement after the fact is harder to do. The biggest power America has is the refusal to sell a nation that violates these principles more drones in the future, but at that point there's already damage done.
After all, a weapons sale is still a weapons sale. And military drones, no matter how new the technology is behind them, aren't really doing anything revolutionary. Peter W. Singer, a senior fellow at the New America foundation (and, full disclosure, a blogger with Popular Science) tweets that the problems with drone exports are not unique drone problems, but rather the universal problems that come with any country selling weapons to another country. Read his tweets on the subject below: