On February 17, the State Department announced a new policy toward the export of U.S.-origin military and commercial Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). This new policy will allow the more widespread export of armed drones for the first time. The announcement by the State Department makes clear the new policy governs the international sale, transfer, and subsequent use of U.S.-origin military UAS. The policy establishes the standards by which the U.S. Government will assess, on a case-by-case basis, potential exports of military UAS, including armed systems. In a sign of continued concerns about national security, the State policy imposes “stringent” conditions on affected sales and transfers, including potential requirements for:

  • sales and transfers of sensitive systems to be made through the government-to-government Foreign Military Sales program;
  • review of potential transfers to be made through the Department of Defense Technology Security and Foreign Disclosure processes;
  • each recipient nation to be required to agree to end-use assurances as a condition of sale or transfer;
  • end-use monitoring and potential additional security conditions to be required; and
  • all sales and transfers to include agreement to principles for proper use.

In addition, the U.S. Government will require that recipients of U.S. origin military UAS agree to the following principles affecting proper use before the U.S. will authorize sales and transfers:

  • recipients are to use these systems in accordance with international law, including international humanitarian law and international human rights law, as applicable;
  • armed and other advanced UAS 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;
  • recipients are not to use military UAS to conduct unlawful surveillance or use unlawful force against their domestic populations; and
  • 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 thrust of the State Department announcement clearly relates to military UAS. However, the announcement by the State Department also asserts that the new policy applies as well to sales, transfers, and subsequent use of U.S.-origin commercial UAS, yet the announcement is very short on detail as to what this means. The announcement states that the policy is committed to stringent standards for U.S.-origin commercial UAS, “to include future commercial MTCR Category I systems”, perhaps suggesting the new policy applies especially to this type of commercial UAS. Beyond that, the policy merely asserts that “all commercial UAS will be reviewed under the requirements and licensing policies described in the [existing] Export Administration Regulations”.  Presumably, more detail will need to be forthcoming on whether and to what degree elements of the policy articulated above will be applied to commercial exports.

The text of the State Department announcement can be found here.