Trump is expected to ease rules for such foreign sales under a new policy on unmanned military aircraft due to be unveiled as early as this month, the first phase of a broader overhaul of weapons export regulations, Reuters reported Tuesday, citing people familiar with the plan.
US drone producers, facing increasing competition from abroad, especially from Chinese and Israeli rivals who often sell under lighter restrictions, have lobbied hard for the rule changes.
The new measures are part of Trump’s so-called "America First” policy, which seeks to rewrite the rules of global commerce in favor of the US and reduce the country’s trade deficit.
"We’re getting outplayed all over the world,” a US official told Reuters. "Why can our competitors sell to our own allies the equipment they are clamoring to buy from us? This policy is meant to turn that around.”
An announcement of the new policy has been delayed for months over deliberations on how far to go in increasing drones exports.
That delay prompted US Defense Secretary James Mattis to press the White House to expedite the policy shift to avoid losing out on sales to certain countries, two US officials told Reuters.
Export regulations will also be eased for surveillance drones of all sizes, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The move marks a major step toward overcoming a long-standing US taboo against selling armed drones to countries other than a handful of Washington’s most trusted allies. The only sales of armed US drones in recent years have been to Britain and Italy.
A list of potential buyers being given fast-track treatment is expected to expand to include more NATO members, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Arab counties, as well as treaty allies such as Japan and South Korea, the people familiar with the plan said.
Also likely to be in the favored group would be key partners such as India, Singapore and Australia as well as many of the 35 signatories to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an international agreement that sets rules for export of missiles and related weaponry.
Human rights and arms control advocates, however, warn it risks fueling violence and instability in regions such as the Middle East and South Asia.
There has been a sharp rise in the number of US drone strikes around the world since Trump took office, according to a report published in December by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
The US carries out drone attacks in Yemen and several other Islamic countries, claiming to be targeting al-Qaeda elements. However, local sources say civilians have been the main victims of the attacks.