The US government has opened the door to exporting armed unmanned air systems (UAS) to foreign governments in new policy announced by the State Department on 17 February.

The policy removes an outright ban on sales of weaponised UAS to foreign customers and places new controls on how such armed systems can be used.

The US military has been using armed UAS in operations since 2002, carrying such weapons as the Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire missile, laser guided bombs and small munitions like the Raytheon AGM-176 Griffin missile.

US export policy, however, limited US contractors to supplying unarmed versions of the same aircraft, such as the MQ-9 Reaper or MQ-1B Predator – on the export market.

While sales of armed UAS abroad are now possible, the US policy prohibits the end-user from using the systems for conducting illegal surveillance and attacks on their own populations.

The new policy continues to uphold the US government’s commitment to the missile technology control regime (MTCR), which dictates a “presumption of denial” on transfers of all unmanned aircraft capable of flying more than 161nm (300km) and carrying a payload of at least 500kg (1,102lb).

The MTCR, however, has always allowed exceptions, which has permitted the USA to export unarmed MQ-9s, MQ-1Bs and Northrop Grumman RQ-4s to multiple countries.

Exports of large commercial UAS that fit the MTCR criteria for range and payload also will be reviewed by the State Department under the new policy.