The US administration appears set to notify Congress of plans to arm a fleet of Italian MQ-9 Reapers, a milestone move that is also expected to boost prospects for Turkish acquisition of the same drones.
A transfer of technology to Italy would make it harder for the United States to refuse to share armed-drone technology if asked for it by other members of the 28-country NATO alliance or by close US partners such as South Korea, Japan and Australia, arms sale analysts said.
"I think that if you sell armed drones to Italy, you will very likely make a decision that any member of NATO that wants them can also get them," said a former congressional staff member who follows the issue.
Turkey wants to buy MQ-9 Reapers to be used in its fight against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorist group but the sale has been thwarted by opposition within the US Congress. Some members of Congress oppose the drone sale to Turkey due to the crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations.
In what Turkish officials labeled an attempt to undermine the Obama administration, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently reported that US Predators based in Turkey provided the first intelligence to Turkish authorities in a botched air strike in December 2011 that resulted in the deaths of 34 villagers, mistakenly thought to be PKK terrorists. The WSJ report said the involvement of the US drones in the incident raised concerns over how the US drone technology could be used by allies.
Turkish President Abdullah Gül said on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Chicago last week that Obama was leaning toward selling the drones to Turkey and was trying to convince Congress on the sale.
In Ankara, a Turkish official said Turkey's request to buy drones remains on the table and that Turkish authorities have been closely following the matter.
The US administration could now move ahead within two weeks on the proposal to let Italy join Britain in deploying US drones with weapons such as laser-guided bombs and Hellfire missiles, US officials said.
The United States has used its MQ-9s to locate and kill members of al-Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistani tribal areas.
Some lawmakers fear that a decision to arm Italian drones may spur overseas sales of related technology by Israel, Russia and China.
Britain, the first foreign country to get US technology to arm its Reapers, is considered a special case. Many US officials and members of Congress view it as Washington's staunchest and most reliable ally.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has publicly opposed the transfer of armed drones. "There are some military technologies that I believe should not be shared with other countries, regardless of how close our partnership," Feinstein, a California Democrat, said last year.
Under US law a proposed US arms sale may proceed unless lawmakers enact a joint resolution barring it, an event that has never occurred.
The Obama administration says that all exports of sensitive military technology are considered on a case-by-case basis under a general policy of "restraint," taking into account national security and foreign-policy considerations as well as US multilateral commitments.
Purchasers of US-made military systems must agree to a strict set of "end-use" conditions designed to limit the system to approved uses such as self-defense and United Nations missions. They also must agree to let the United States monitor their adherence to these conditions.
Italy has sought to arm its drones for use in Afghanistan, where it maintains about 3,950 troops. But it initially wanted the drones themselves for such things as border patrols, the former congressional staff member said.