U.S. government approves Italy's request to arm its drones

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department has approved a longstanding request from Italy to arm its two MQ-9 Reaper drones with Hellfire missiles, laser-guided bombs and other munitions, the U.S. Defense Department announced on Wednesday.

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This would be the first effective sale of armed drones approved since the U.S. government established a policy in February for exports of the new type of weapons that have played a key role in U.S. military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.

Italy would be only the second country to be approved to buy armed drones after Britain, which has been using them since 2007, according to two U.S. officials who were not authorized to speak publicly.

The Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which oversees foreign arms sales, notified U.S. lawmakers late on Tuesday about the possible sale, which is valued at $129.6 million. It said privately held General Atomics would serve as the prime contractor.

General Atomics declined comment since the arms sale is a government-to-government transaction.

Italy has been asking the United States since 2012 to add weapons to two unarmed MQ-9 Reapers, whose sale was first approved in 2009. Turkey has also requested to buy armed drones from the United States.

Initially U.S. lawmakers had concerns, ultimately spurring an interagency review that produced the new drone export policy.

U.S. lawmakers have 15 days to block the sale but such action is rare since deals are carefully vetted before Congress is formally notified.

The proposed sale includes 156 AGM-114R2 Hellfire II missiles built by Lockheed Martin Corp, 20 GBU-12 laser-guided bombs, 30 GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions and other armaments, according to the Pentagon agency.

One of the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said any exports of drones, armed or not, require a case-by-case assessment and close scrutiny, but the sale was ultimately approved because Italy was a key ally and partner of the United States.

“It’s not a decision we’ve taken lightly, and it’s symbolic of our trust in Italy as a partner,” the official said. “Italy is a responsible member of the international community and they have been with us in every significant recent NATO and U.S.-led operation.”

Italy asked for the drones to support NATO and coalition operations, increase operational flexibility, and better protect deployed Italian forces.

The new U.S. export policy maintains “a strong presumption of denial” of sales of the biggest drones like the MQ-9 - Category I aircraft. It allows exports on rare occasions, but buyers of military drones must agree to strict conditions, including a ban on using the drones for unlawful surveillance or to crack down on their domestic populations.

Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe