The US State Department has approved a sale of armed drones to Italy, the first such transaction to be allowed under a new policy. Previously only the UK was allowed to share this technology.

US service personnel train in loading munitions on an MQ-9

Drones are becoming big business and this sale seems to signal the start of an export strategy for unmanned aerial systems (UAS). In February the State Department noted: 

'As the nascent commercial UAS market emerges, the United States has a responsibility to ensure that sales, transfers, and subsequent use of all US origin UAS are responsible and consistent with US national security and foreign policy interests, including economic security.

The estimated contribution of the proposed sale to economic security is $126 million. This amount may pale in comparison to the long term security costs of international proliferation.

According to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency's media release, the proposed sale is for MQ-9 'Reaper' weaponisation kits to Italy, along with 156 Hellfire II missiles and other equipment. While payloads such as missiles and bombs are classified as MDE (major defense equipment), the weaponisation kits for the MQ-9s are not. Rather, they are categorised as 'non-MDE items' and thus subject to less stringent regulations under the US Arms Export Control Act.

Under such guidelines, will the sale, as purported by the announcement 'contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by improving the capability of a ... key democratic partner of the United States in ensuring peace and stability around the world'? The answer may depend on whether you take a short or long term view.

The report noted further that 'the proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region'. But scholars argue that a long-term global perspective should take precedence over any short-term regional focus.

An important consideration here is the moral hazard some observers believe armed drones introduce to decision-making. Just as countries are less hesitant to shoot down drones than manned aircraft, decision-makers can deploy the technology with no risk to pilot’s lives or ground troops. The reduced cost in blood and treasure is thought to lower the threshold for the use of force.

In a 2014 Foreign Affairs article, Sarah Kreps and Micah Zenko suggested that while drones do not possess the transformative power of nuclear weapons, the moral hazard around their use meant they could still be highly destabilising to international order. Specifically, the authors wrote, armed drones could increase the possibility of 'military conflicts in disputed areas where the slightest provocation could lead to strife'.

Armed drones have been on the front line of the War on Terror for years. They are so common as to be the subject of presidential humour. At the White house Correspondents Association Dinner in 2010, President Barack Obama cautioned any potential suitors for his daughters with the joke: 'I have two words for you: Predator Drone. You will never see it coming'.

Armed drones have been praised for targeting precision that keeps civilian casualties and economic costs low. As part surveillance machine, they are responsive to changing conditions, such as the entrance of non-combatants into a blast zone. Since drone operations pose less risk to civilians and less collateral damage overall, they tend not to threaten diplomatic relations with neighbouring states. In fact, the use of drones typically requires flyover and basing rights in neighbouring countries.

To date, only the US, the UK and Israel are known with certainty to have used armed drones, although other states such as China, Pakistan, India, Turkey and Iran also claim to have the technology either ready to deploy, or in advanced development. In Australia, Japan and Singapore, the focus has been on surveillance drones, which the NSW Police began trialing late last year.

Both surveillance and armed drones have potential international security implications. Recently, Japanese officials debated shooting down Chinese surveillance drones over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Island. A former PLA commander responded that this would be considered an act of war.

So far the US has conducted the vast majority of drone strikes (with over 1000 drone strikes in Afghanistan alone since 2008). Even as the annual number of strikes steadily increases, the use of armed drones has maintained broad political support. According to 2015 Pew survey, the majority of Americans polled support the use of drone strikes against terrorist targets (except where the target is a US citizen). This is not surprising in an age of intervention fatigue. Armed drones are a much easier sell than ' boots on ground'.

Less clear are both Americans' views on international sales of armed drone technology, and the long term security implications of proliferation enabled by such transactions.

Image courtesy of New York National Guard