WASHINGTON — The US State Department is asking countries to sign onto a set of international norms for the sale and use of armed unmanned systems, with top agency officials holding meetings with delegates from various nations at this week's Arms Trade Treaty conference in Geneva on the subject.
In recent weeks the department sent out a one-page document, titled "Proposed Joint Declaration of Principles for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)," to a number of international allies.
Defense News obtained a copy of the document, and a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the authenticity of the document. However, the official stressed that it was a draft declaration and not the final language that could eventually be used.
A US delegation, led by Brian Nilsson, deputy assistant secretary of state for defense trade controls in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, traveled to Geneva this week with the express purpose of holding meetings with foreign delegations attending the conference and encouraging them to sign onto the declaration.
The State official would not confirm if any countries have agreed to sign on, but there are indications that the US will seek to unveil a list of signatories around the time a set of United Nations meetings are to take place, starting Oct. 3.
The document lays out five key principals for international norms, including the "applicability of International law" and human rights when using armed drones; a dedication to following existing arms control laws when considering the sale of armed unmanned systems; that sales of armed drone exports take "into account the potential recipient country’s history regarding adherence to international obligations and commitments"; that countries who export unmanned strike systems follow "appropriate transparency measures" when required; and a resolution to continue to "ensure these capabilities are transferred and used responsibly by all States."
That language is likely to fall well below what anti-drone advocates and the arms control community would like to see, but the State Department official said the document represents only an "important first step" toward creating international standards for drone exports.
"The declaration is a political commitment by its signatories that stands on its own merits, but it is also intended to inform future, more fulsome international standards that could address factors beyond compliance with existing international law and transparency requirements
the official said.
Michael Horowitz, a former Pentagon official who is now an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and who has focused on drone export policies, says the language presented in the draft declaration is in line with the new drone export rules put in place by the US in February 2015.
"This is an attempt by the Obama administration to confront the inevitability of drone proliferation in a way that promotes the responsible use of drones by other countries," Horowitz told Defense News.
In essence, the language put forth in the draft declaration would put international producers of unmanned systems in line with the same rules and regulations US producers have followed since the release of those 2015 guidelines.
"One of the best tools the US has to shape how countries use drones, ironically, is to export drones to them, given the ability of the US to leverage arms export rules to shape how countries use technology," Horowitz said. "Especially if the US increasingly views drone proliferation as inevitable, the Obama administration likely views rules of the road as critical to ensure that the rest of the world uses drones responsibly."
Indeed, the State official acknowledged that creating a global standard is very much a focus within the agency.
"As other nations begin to employ military UAS more regularly and 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, as well as with U.S. values and international standards," the official said.
The challenge facing the State department may be getting the major producers of armed unmanned systems to join onto such an agreement. After all, it’s one thing to get a country that does not plan to produce armed systems to sign on, but quite another to get a nation like China to agree on rules that could potentially restrict its defense industry growth.
A 2015 analysis by IHS Janes predicted the drone export market, including both armed and unarmed systems, would exceed $10 billion by 2024, with China, Russia, India, South Korea and Japan predicted to reach $3.4 billion in sales during that period.
Meanwhile, a May 2016 report from analysis group Avascent found that Israel will continue to grow its defense sector at the expense of Western exporters, driven in large part by its unmanned systems sales.
Horowitz noted that getting countries to agree to export "in a responsible manner may actually help other exporters get customers, particularly if US exports do not increase." But, he said, many countries will likely need time to come to that conclusion.
"I would expect other countries to take some time to digest the US initiative, particularly if they worry that it might cut into their export markets," Horowitz said. "US leadership will be critical in persuading other countries that such an initiative is in their interests as well as that of the United States."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.