US deal to arm Italy's drones opens new front in arms trade

Congress authorises expansion of robotic warfare technology favoured by Obama

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The Independent US

Washington has agreed in principle to install weapons on Italy’s fleet of unmanned aircraft in spite of concerns about a new arms race among nations to acquire and deploy robot drones capable of deadly force.

As President Barack Obama has come to rely more and more on armed drones to erase terror threats in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and protect troops in Afghanistan, other nations have begun more urgently to covet them. Today, Britain is the only country using drones loaded with US-provided weaponry.

The offer to Italy was submitted to Congress but a 40-day review period expired at the weekend apparently without objection. Although a resolution by both chambers could in theory still block the sale that is unlikely. A Pentagon spokesman declined specifically to confirm the transaction but defended the wider notion of transferring military capability to Italy as a “strong partner and NATO ally”, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Britain acquired its first US-built Reaper drones in 2007 to fly surveillance missions in Afghanistan. However, Washington agreed a year later to upgrade them with weapons to make them strike-capable. The view at the time was the UK was an exception because of its ‘special relationship’ ties with America.

President Obama’s barely disguised romance with drones, which extends far beyond the theatre in Afghanistan, is meanwhile coming under new scrutiny as he seeks re-election. Separately, The New York Times yesterday revealed that he has the final say in overseeing what is essentially a “kill list” of individuals with alleged ties to al-Qa’ida and its affiliated networks that the US would like to take out with drone strikes.

His willingness to authorise the strikes is simultaneously neutering efforts by conservatives to paint him as soft on national security and creating angst for liberals who supported him in 2008 as a candidate who would emphasise reconciliation over aggression in part to make it harder for al-Qa’ida to recruit new followers – a stance, by the way, that also meant closing Guantanamo, which has not happened.

Most controversial was the green light personally given by President Obama last year to target and kill, without recourse to capture and potential trial, the American-born extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Meanwhile almost daily drone strikes on suspected terror encampments in northwest Pakistan continue to put severe strain on relations with Islamabad.

Experts have drawn attention to the role of John Brennan, the counter-terrorism advisor to Mr Obama, who ran anti-al-Qai’ida operations inside the CIA when President George Bush was in the White House. His influence in the Oval Office is seen as confirmation that little has changed America’s war on terror since Mr Obama took office in 2009, except, that is, for the expanding role of robotic warfare.

Mr Brennan has himself warned about the dangers of allowing other nations to get hold of America’s drone technology. The White House, he said last month, is “very mindful that, as our nation uses this technology, we are establishing precedents that other nations may follow, and not all of those nations…share our interests or the premium we put on protecting human life, including innocent civilians”.

If the deal goes ahead, Italy’s drones will be fitted with ‘Hellfire’ missiles and other weaponry. Among those worried is Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Texas, who co-chairs a congressional group on drone deployment. “I would like to know the criteria, how it’s going to be used, because once you get that equipment, it's out there,” he said. “We’ve got to give it some thought, not rush into it.”

The risk of an arms race was voiced by Senator Dianne Feinstein, who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee.  “America’s cutting-edge high technology should not be shared. That’s just my view. I am concerned by the proliferation of these weapons systems and don't think we should be selling them.”

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