U.S. Plans to Arm Italy’s Drones

The modifications will allow 6 Italian Reapers to "carry and fire Hellfire missiles, laser-guided bombs and larger munitions"

From Adam Entous, the Wall Street Journal:  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 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. . . .

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. . . .

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.

From Eric Schmitt, the New York Times:  Italy now flies unarmed surveillance aircraft to help protect the 4,000 troops it has deployed to Afghanistan. But Italian officials have been eager to upgrade their Reapers, a larger, more lethal version of Predator drones, since an Italian soldier died in a firefight while the unarmed aircraft hovered overhead helplessly, a senior Congressional aide said. . . .

Surveillance drones, from tiny insectlike probes to giant Global Hawk aircraft, have become ubiquitous over battlefields and border areas, but relatively few are armed. . . .

State Department officials said that as a condition of any sale of such advanced technology, the buyer would have to allow American monitors to check on the way the aircraft were being used.

From Jim Wolf, Reuters:  Turkey is among countries that have been seeking to buy U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. The MQ-9 Reaper is larger and more capable than the earlier MQ-1 Predator, both built by General Atomics.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul said on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Chicago last week that Obama was leaning toward selling UAVs to Turkey, which has fought separatist Kurdish rebels for decades in a conflict that has killed 40,000 people.

"The administration’s position (toward a sale) is favorable," Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency quoted Gul as saying after he met Obama. "They are trying to convince Congress. . . ."

Purchasers of U.S.-made military systems must agree to a strict set of "end-use" conditions designed to limit the system to approved uses such as self-defense and United Nations missions. They also must agree to let the United States monitor their adherence to these conditions.

Italy has sought to arm its drones for use in Afghanistan, where it maintains about 3,950 troops. But it initially wanted the drones themselves for such things as border patrols, the former congressional staff member said.  (photo: An Honorable German/Flickr)

Image: flicker%205%2030%2012%20Reaper.jpg