By Adam Entous | WSJ | May 29, 2012
WASHINGTON—The Obama administration plans to arm Italy's fleet of Reaper drone aircraft, a move that could open the door for sales of advanced hunter-killer drone technology to other allies, according to lawmakers and others familiar with the matter.
The sale would make Italy the first foreign country besides Britain to fly U.S. drones armed with missiles and laser-guided bombs. U.S. officials said Italy intends initially to deploy the armed drones in Afghanistan.
Lawmakers who question the planned deal say the decision to "weaponize" Italy's unarmed surveillance drones could make it harder for the U.S. to deny similar capabilities to other North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, and set back efforts to urge sales limitations on other nations that make sophisticated drones such as Israel.
Advocates say such sales would enable trusted allies to conduct military missions on their own as well as help open markets for U.S. drone manufacturers.
The administration sent a confidential "pre-notification" to congressional panels in April detailing its plan to sell kits to Italy to arm up to six Reaper drones, which are larger, more-powerful versions of Predators.
The administration gave Congress a longer-than-usual 40 days to review the proposed sale. The period ended May 27 without a move to block the sale, according to congressional officials, clearing the way for the deal to move forward and for a formal notification of Congress as soon as this week.
Congress still could block the sale if it passes a joint resolution of disapproval in both the House and the Senate within 15 calendar days, though several members of Congress from both parties say such a move is unlikely.
A Pentagon spokeswoman said the U.S. won't comment on proposed foreign military sales until Congress is formally notified of them. "Italy is a strong partner and NATO ally that significantly contributes to U.S. and NATO-led coalition operations," said the spokeswoman, Commander Wendy Snyder.
She added: "The transfer of U.S. defense articles and services to Italy, among other allies, enables Italy to burden-share and contribute capabilities to operations that protect not only Italian troops but also those of the United States and other coalition partners."
The White House declined to comment, as did the Italian embassy in Washington. Italian military officers in Afghanistan declined to comment on the use of Reapers there. Italy has lost about 50 troops in Afghanistan.
Critics of the proposed sale include the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. "America's cutting-edge high technology should not be shared. That's just my view," Mrs. Feinstein said. "I am concerned by the proliferation of these weapons systems and don't think we should be selling them."
A chief concern of critics is that the administration has yet to spell out what strings, if any, would be attached to a sales of this type to Italy and other future buyers.
Though Italy would initially use armed drones to protect its nearly 4,000 troops in Afghanistan, U.S. officials indicated they might be used elsewhere in the future. The administration could negotiate "end-use requirements" to limit how the armed Reapers can be used, but it hasn't told Congress what those might be.
Advocates of the deal question why critics would oppose the sale of armed drones while supporting the sale of other sophisticated and deadly systems, such as F-35 manned stealth fighters and cruise missiles, to Italy, Turkey and others.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D., Texas), co-head of a congressional group called the Unmanned Systems Caucus, said the U.S. has a complex calculation to make in deciding whether to sell advanced drones to allies, balancing concerns about proliferation against the goal of promoting U.S. sales abroad.
"I would like to know the criteria, how it's going to be used, because once you get that equipment, it's out there," Mr. Cuellar said. "We've got to give it some thought, not rush into it."
The world procurement market for aerial drones, both military and civilian, is expected to rise to $5.8 billion in 2017 from a projected $4.3 billion next year, according to Teal Group, a market-analysis firm.
The figures include Reapers and Predators but not a new generation of drones specifically designed as combat vehicles.
Despite the administration's support for armed-drone sales to close allies, top officials say they are increasingly concerned about the spread of the technology. John Brennan, President Barack Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, said in a speech last month that the president and his national-security team are "very mindful that, as our nation uses this technology, we are establishing precedents that other nations may follow, and not all of those nations…share our interests or the premium we put on protecting human life, including innocent civilians."
Mr. Brennan didn't single out any country. Officials privately voice concern that Russia and China could soon field their own armed drones, potentially against separatist movements, in ways the U.S. might find objectionable. Administration officials want standards to govern the use of drones in warfare, but it is unclear how those standards could be set and how the U.S. would get other countries to sign on to them.
Britain, the first foreign country to get armed Reapers, is considered a "special case" because of its historically close military ties to the U.S.
It deployed its first unarmed Reaper surveillance drone in Afghanistan in October 2007. Surveillance drones gather intelligence and alert ground forces and manned aircraft, which can then fire on the target. Britain soon asked the U.S. to arm its Reapers, which the U.S. did in 2008.
Italy is following a similar path, said Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and author of "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century."
NATO member Turkey also wants to buy armed Reapers—for use against Kurdish separatist fighters—and the Obama administration supports Turkey's request. Lawmakers have objected, citing tensions between Ankara and Israel, so far preventing the administration from sending such a proposal to Congress for review.
Some current and former U.S. officials question the standards used by Turkey in selecting targets for strikes, pointing to a strike by Turkish warplanes in December that killed 34 civilians after a U.S. Predator drone provided surveillance footage to the Turkish military.
The administration initially approached lawmakers last year to sound them out about arming Italy's Reapers. That request—unlike the one in April—was pulled after some lawmakers privately raised questions.
Officials said it would take at least a year to complete the upgrade of Italy's Reapers and train Italian pilots to use the sophisticated weapons and targeting systems. That has prompted some officials in Congress to question whether the armed Reapers would be of much use in Afghanistan, since NATO plans call for withdrawing combat forces by the end of 2014.
The kits would allow the Reapers to carry and fire Hellfire missiles, laser-guided bombs and larger munitions used to take out more deeply buried targets, according to officials briefed on the package.
—Alessandra Galloni contributed to this article.