This week, the Obama administration announced a new policy loosening export restrictions for military and commercial drones. This policy shift represents a responsible first step toward ensuring U.S. defense industry competitiveness in the face of an ever-increasing number of global drone producers and exporters. It also gives the United States a better chance to establish and shape agreed-upon norms for the international use of drones.

To date, the administration has been extremely reluctant to transfer drones  –particularly those that are armed – abroad, withholding them even from countries to which the United States sells advanced fighter jets. This is a mistake based on a misguided notion that drones are a special technology, and that if the United States does not transfer them to others, then they will not proliferate.


Indeed, military and commercial use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, has dramatically expanded over the past decade. The U.S. military has thousands of drones in its inventory, from armed Predators and Reapers to small, hand-launched drones carried by troops in the field. Drones have been vital tools in the fight against al Qaeda and the Islamic State, allowing round-the-clock overhead surveillance to track terrorists and unravel their networks. And despite popular narratives to the contrary, drones allow more discriminating and precise military action than manned aircraft, reducing the risk of civilian casualties.

Nor does the United States have a monopoly on drone technology. Drones – including armed variants – are already proliferating abroad. At least twenty countries already have or are developing armed drones, and China has reportedly sold its Predator-equivalent, the Wing Loong, to several countries.  Furthermore, commercial drones – available for purchase by non-state actors and individuals alike – are becoming increasingly accessible, affordable, and sophisticated.  Both countries and non-state actors could easily repurpose commercial drone technology for military purposes. This will place militarily-significant drone capabilities in the hands of many actors around the world.

The United States can’t stop the proliferation of drones abroad. The basic technology behind a remotely controlled aircraft, even one with weapons, is well within reach of any modern military. And many of the advanced technologies the United States uses, like satellite communications, are not necessary for the operational drone needs of many countries. When countries have security disputes, after all, it tends to be with countries bordering them, and widely available line-of-sight communications can allow operations of up to several hundred miles, particularly if a second drone is used as a communications relay. 

What the United States can do is shape expectations for appropriate use of drones. North Korea has already flown drones into South KoreaHamas and Hezbollah have flown them into Israeli airspace. In 2013, China flew a dronenear the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, prompting Japan to scramble manned fighter aircraft to intercept it. In a tense exchange of words afterwards, Japan declared it would shoot down any drone that entered its airspace, and China stated that it would treat the downing of its drones as an act of war. These incidents have all occurred without U.S. transfers of drones to North Korea, Hamas, Hezbollah or China. They raise challenging security concerns, however, and highlight the urgent need for an international understanding of the “rules of the road” for drones.

The new U.S. export policy responds to the world’s changing technological and strategic realities by enabling more targeted transfers of drones to key international allies and partners. The administration should follow through by moving forward on long-delayed transfers to close partners such as Italy and Japan. The administration should also look closely at transfers to trusted partners in the fight against the Islamic State, such as Jordan. Even the current U.S. drone inventory isn’t robust enough to comprehensively monitor terrorist networks. Bolstering the capabilities of U.S. allies and partners to fight al Qaeda and the Islamic State is in the U.S. interest and can help offset a near-term shortfall in U.S. drones. Conditional transfers to such countries – contingent upon the legitimate and lawful use of the system – will also help to demonstrate that drones, like other military technologies, must be used in ways that comply with international law.  This approach will in turn strengthen nascent norms for responsible employment.

The Obama administration should not let this opportunity go to waste and should now follow through on its policy and begin targeted transfers to close U.S. allies and partners. The risks of remaining on the sidelines outweigh the risks of taking action. 

Scharre is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, where Jackson is a visiting fellow and Sayler is a research assistant.