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Obama will reportedly let more countries buy American drones

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Greg Goebel / Flickr

President Barack Obama's administration will soon allow "widespread" export of armed unmanned aerial vehicles, The Washington Post reports. "The technology is here to stay," an anonymous State Department official is quoted as saying about the changes, which will reportedly be announced today. "It's to our benefit to have certain allies and partners equipped appropriately." According to the Post, the new rules are classified, but foreign governments who want to purchase armed or unarmed drones from US companies will be approved on a case-by-case basis within "months, but not years," in a framework similar to other arms sales. Countries must agree to "proper use" principles that ban them from using drones to illegally spy on or attack their own citizens, among other things, and US will have the right to monitor how the drones are used.

Historically, only Britain is known to buy armed US drones

According to the Post, US officials say only Britain has been sold armed drones in the past, although unarmed surveillance craft are more broadly distributed. Obama, however, has made drone strikes an integral part of global warfare, arguing that they could be a more targeted, less indiscriminately deadly way to fight terrorism than "putting boots on the ground." The US isn't the only country to have armed its UAVs, although the number remains small. A mid-2014 Council on Foreign Relations report on drone proliferation noted that besides the US and UK, China, Israel, and Iran had developed armed drones, and other countries — including India and Pakistan — had announced plans to do so. Israel and China have both sold drones to foreign buyers. As the Post notes, Congress would have a say in approving sufficiently large exports, which could lead to clashes between drone critics like Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and the White House.

In the CFR report, researchers Micah Zenko and Sarah Kreps warned that making drones a bigger part of military arsenals could lower the barrier to warfare and make misunderstandings more likely. "The unique ability of drones to hover for long periods over a target and react quickly to strike opportunities, all with no risk to a pilot, means ... that they will be deployed more frequently than other armed assets," wrote Kreps and Zenko. The pair said that the US had a "unique responsibility" to develop norms around using and selling armed drones — including developing consistent buyer principles similar to the ones the Post cites, and helping craft multinational agreements that would bring these standards to other countries as well.