Published On: Tue, Jul 15th, 2014

Washington May Ease Export Controls on Military Drones – WSJ

U.S. export-control officials appear poised to ease some rules that have sharply restricted sales of American-made military drones overseas, a step likely to result from Washington’s long-pending review of such technology transfers.

That was the gist of the message a high-ranking State Department official issued Monday during a panel discussion at a major international air show here. Without going into specifics or explicitly saying existing rules will be loosened, Kenneth Handelman, who oversees defense trade controls at the department, suggested advocates of such exports would be pleased with the U.S. government’s eventual decision.

Noting that the policy review relating to unmanned aircraft has been “ongoing for quite a long time,” Mr. Handelman said it entails “intense conversations within the U.S. government.” But in the end, he said, “there will be a lot to say” that is likely to be “very helpful to exporters and also to our allies” who are “hoping to take advantage” of U.S. military-drone technology. “So please stay tuned,” he said.

The issue has been closely watched by both aerospace companies eager to start selling military drones to other nations, and various critics such as human-rights groups skeptical about the spread of drone technology that can be used to carry missiles or for some other military purposes.

Whatever happens, the new policy won’t affect U.S. exports of commercial drones, which will continue to be licensed by the Commerce Department under existing rules.

By contrast, military drones come under the purview of the State Department-administered Munitions List, which requires tighter controls and greater federal scrutiny before export licenses can be issued. Export of drones capable of flying more than 180 miles with certain size payloads historically have been prohibited by the U.S. as part of a global drive targeting proliferation of missiles capable of carrying nuclear devices.

In his remarks, Mr. Handelman said that the debate over how to treat drones is complicated because that antiproliferation effort “sometimes has unintended consequences.”

The policy review comes at the same time as a separate, broad effort to reform overall U.S. export-control regulations. The aim is to give the Commerce Department authority over various technologies that traditionally have been overseen by the State Department.

For years, drone makers have been urging the U.S. government to loosen restrictions limiting their export. But that has stirred up controversy. A recent report released by the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, urged President Barack Obama’s administration to continue to limit the spread of such technology because it has the potential to destabilize regions and encourage nations to opt for military solutions.

India, Pakistan, Israel and China are among countries that already have or are thinking about developing or procuring militarily capable drones.

Monday’s remarks also come amid escalating debate across the U.S. about Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency initiatives to use drones to target terrorists overseas. And at the show in Farnborough, France and the U.K. are expected to formally agree to joint development of an advanced military drone.

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