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Trump administration to allow US defense contractors to sell more drones to allies

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The Trump administration will reinterpret a Cold War-era arms agreement between 34 nations to allow US defense contractors to sell more drones to allies, the White House said on Friday.

President Donald Trump "has decided to invoke our national discretion" to effect the change, the White House said.

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The new treatment opens up sales of armed US drones to less stable governments that were forbidden from buying them under the 33-year-old Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

The Trump administration has pressed ahead with its revamp of drone export policy under pressure from American manufacturers and despite objections from human rights advocates, who warn of the risk of fueling instability in hot spots, including the Middle East and South Asia.

Read more: US drone shot down by Iranian missile in international airspace

The MTCR classifies large drones as cruise missiles - and, therefore, is subject to high export restrictions - making approvals rare.

"The United States remains a committed member of the MTCR and regards it as an important nonproliferation tool to curb the spread of high-end missile technologies to countries such as North Korea and Iran. Preventing the use and spread of WMD and their means of delivery remains an administration priority," State Department Spokesperson Megan Ortagus said in a statement.

Under the reinterpretation, the United States says it will treat drones that fly under 800 kilometers per hour, including Reapers made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc and Global Hawks made by Northrop Grumman Corp, as if they belong in a lower category that falls outside MTCR jurisdiction. No longer subject to the MTCR's high bar, large drone exports will be considered on a case-by-case basis like other weapons sales.

Reinterpreting the MTCR is part of a broader Trump administration effort to sell more weapons overseas. It has overhauled a broad range of arms export regulations and removed the US from international arms treaties, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies.