By Matt Siegel
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian air force personnel have begun training on armed drones in the United States, Australian defense officials said on Monday, less than a week after Washington said it would begin exporting the controversial weapons system.
The U.S. State Department last week said it would allow exports of lethal military drones under strict conditions, such as sales through government programs and agreements by recipient nations to provide "end-use assurances."
The details of the policy are classified. It follows a two-year review amid growing demand from U.S. allies for the new category of weapons that have played a key role in U.S. military action in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.
An Australian defense department spokeswoman told Reuters no decision had been taken, but the decision to send personnel to train on General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drone is likely to be seen as a signal it is considering a purchase.
"Unmanned aerial systems are an advancing technology with a proven record of providing ‘eyes in the sky’ in the Middle East region," Australian Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence, Darren Chester, said in a statement.
"It would be remiss of Australia not to continue to develop our knowledge of this technology to ensure we are able to gain the greatest benefit from unmanned aerial systems and the best protection for our troops on future operations."
Privately held General Atomics, which also makes the Predator drone, Northrop Grumman Corp, Textron Inc and other arms makers have been urging Washington for years to loosen strict export curbs, which they say have cost them orders to Israel and others in the growing market.
Australia is a close U.S. ally and last year committed to buying the U.S. Navy’s MQ-4C Northrop Grumman-made Triton unmanned aircraft, alongside eight of Boeing Co's P-8A Poseidon long-range spy planes.
Britain is the only country now flying armed U.S. drones, but France and Italy fly Reaper surveillance drones.
Buyers of military drones have to agree to strict conditions, such as sticking to international law and not using them for unlawful surveillance or crackdowns on citizens.
(Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)