President Donald Trump will soon make it easier to export some types of lethal U.S.-made drones to potentially dozens more allies and partners, according to people familiar with the plan.
Trump is expected to ease rules for such foreign sales under a long-delayed new policy on unmanned military aircraft due to be rolled out as early as this month, the first phase of a broader overhaul of arms export regulations, Reuters said.
U.S. drone manufacturers, facing growing competition overseas especially from Chinese and Israeli rivals who often sell under lighter restrictions, have lobbied hard for the rule changes.
The White House is expected to tout the move as part of Trump's "Buy American" initiative to create jobs and reduce the U.S. trade deficit.
Human rights and arms control advocates, however, warn it risks fueling violence and instability in regions such as the Middle East and South Asia. An announcement of the new policy has been held up for months amid deliberations on how far to go in unleashing drones exports. That delay prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to write to Trump's national security adviser H.R. McMaster to press him to expedite the policy shift to avoid losing out on sales to certain countries, an industry source and two U.S officials said.
A key thrust of the policy will be to lower barriers to sales of smaller hunter-killer drones that carry fewer missiles and travel shorter distances than larger models such as the iconic Predator drone, the sources said. Export regulations will also be eased for surveillance drones of all sizes, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Even though Trump will stop short of completely opening up sales of top-of-the-line lethal drones, it will mark a major step toward overcoming a long-standing U.S. taboo against selling armed drones to countries other than a handful of Washington's most trusted allies. Military drones have changed the face of modern warfare, with U.S. models in greatest demand.
Trump's aides had initially focused mostly on devising ways to boost sales of "eye in the sky" drones used for tracking and targeting. But after a more than year-long review, they have crafted a plan that will reinterpret some rules to allow for more armed drone sales overseas.
A list of potential buyers being given fast-track treatment is expected to expand to include more NATO members, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf partners as well as treaty allies such as Japan and South Korea, the people familiar with the plan said.
Also likely to be in the favored group would be key partners such as India, Singapore and Australia as well as many of the 35 signatories to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an international agreement that sets rules for export of missiles and related weaponry. The only sales of armed U.S. drones in recent years have been to Britain and Italy.