The State Department said it would allow exports of lethal U.S. military drones under strict conditions, including that sales must be made through government programs and that recipient nations must agree to certain "end-use assurances."
The policy, the details of which are classified, comes after a two-year review amid growing demand from U.S. allies for the new breed of weapons that have played a key role in U.S. military action in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.
It could help U.S. companies boost sales of military and commercial drones in an increasingly competitive global market.
Privately held General Atomics, maker of the Predator and Reaper drones, Northrop Grumman Corp, Textron Inc and other arms makers have been urging Washington for years to loosen strict export curbs, which they say have caused them to lose orders to Israel and others in the growing market.
Ideally, the policy would help industry better understand the current complex review process for drone exports, said Remy Nathan, vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association. He said AIA had asked for a classified briefing on the policy.
The shift came just days after U.S. aviation regulators proposed rules that would lift some restrictions on drone use for commercial purposes, but would still limit activities such as inspections of pipelines.
The change also follows stern warnings by top U.S. officials about rapid advances in weapons technology by China, Russia and other potential foes, including unmanned systems.
China has its own ambitious drone program and has exported drones to at least nine countries, including Pakistan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, while it is also in talks with Saudi Arabia and Algeria for sales, according to Chinese state media.
POPULAR FOR SURVEILLANCE
The new policy will make it easier for America's closest allies to buy armed drones, while maintaining stringent controls on the overall technology, U.S. officials said.
Britain is the only country now flying armed U.S. drones, but France and Italy fly Reaper surveillance drones. A State Department official said previous requests for armed drones from Italy and Turkey would be reviewed in light of the new policy.
Sales of surveillance drones could also help U.S. allies in the Middle East fight Islamic State militants. U.S. lawmakers are currently considering the sale of unarmed Predator drones to the United Arab Emirates, which has played a key role in air strikes on Islamic State sites in recent weeks.
The policy maintains "a strong presumption of denial" of sales of the biggest drones, so-called Category I aircraft that have a range of at least 300 km (186 miles) and can carry a payload of at least 500 kg (1,102 pounds), but will allow such exports on "rare occasions."
The official said there was no formal list of countries that would be eligible for exports of armed drones, and all requests would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, with consideration of human rights, regional power balance, and other factors.
Even before the new policy was announced, the U.S. government had granted General Atomics a license to market its Predator XP export model to India.
SPY DRONES FOR PHILIPPINES
The Philippines, which is embroiled in a bitter dispute with China over South China Sea boundaries, would be interested in drones that could be used for intelligence and surveillance operations, military spokesman Colonel Restituto Padilla said.
It did not want armed drones, he added.
Sales of armed drones could boost Lockheed Martin Corp , which builds Hellfire missiles that are used by Predator and Reaper drones, but could also help companies like L-3 Communications Holdings Inc and Raytheon Co, which build sensors and simulators for the unmanned systems.
"The new policy ensures appropriate participation for U.S. industry in the emerging commercial UAS market, which will contribute to the health of the U.S. industrial base, and thus to U.S. national security, which includes economic security," the State Department official said.
Under the policy, buyers of military drones will have to agree to strict conditions, including adherence to international law, and a ban on using the drones for unlawful surveillance or to crack down on their domestic populations.
General Atomics 'Predator XP' Remote piloted aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicle, UAV/UAS - Export variant of the Predator designed specifically to be unable to carry weapons to allow for wider exportation opportunities. Features winglets with an endurance of 35 hours and a service ceiling of 25,000 ft. . Unit cost US$4.03 million (2010).