New UAV Agreement May Be Stalled as Numerous Key State Department Positions Remain Vacant

By Melissa Miller Proctor

A recent article by Defense News reports that the movement towards an international agreement on the responsible use and export of drones may be stalled as a result of numerous vacancies in key positions within the State Department that would normally be working to push out a U.S. policy on armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). 

In the Fall of 2016, the U.S. and 44 other countries signed a joint declaration on the export and use of armed and strike-enabled drones—this was viewed as a first step towards the implementation of formal, international standards for the transfer and use of UAVs. The joint declaration was driven by an uptick in the commercial availability and proliferation of UAVs around the world was intended to trigger additional formal discussions culminating in an international agreement. The declaration set forth the following 5 principles: 

  • Armed UAVs should be subject to international law, including the law of armed conflict and international humans rights law;
  • Exports of armed and strike-enabled UAVs should comport with other established arms control standards and those of existing multilateral export and non-proliferation organizations;
  • Exporters should be required to consider an end user's previous history of compliance with international obligations before transferring armed or strike-enabled UAVS;
  • Exports should be transparent and require reporting through existing mechanisms; and, 
  • Each country should start collaborating on the establishment of international standards for armed UAVs. 

The signatories had planned to meet in early 2017 to discuss next steps but decided to postpone the meeting until June to give the new administration time to set policy. As a general rule, licenses are required to be obtained from the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC) in accordance with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations before such systems may be exported, reexported or temporarily imported into the United States—unless an exemption applies. One of the challenges faced by the new administration in this area is the fact that there are more than 110 currently unfilled positions, including Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs and Under Secretary for Civilian Secretary, key positions that would be expected to drive U.S. policy on armed UAVs.

There are positive reports from the White House regarding meetings that addressed the joint declaration. Polsinelli will continue to monitor the steps taken by the joint declaration’s signatories and the U.S. government, as well as legislative and regulatory developments that may impact the UAS industry. 

If you have questions about the joint declaration, U.S. export controls on UAVs, or other international trade issues, please feel free to contact a member of Polsinelli’s UAS-AR team, including Melissa Proctor at

Click here to learn more about Polsinelli’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems and Advanced Robotics practice, or contact Tom Gemmell.