By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department has approved a longstanding request from Italy to arm its two MQ-9 Reaper drones with Hellfire missiles, laser-guided bombs and other munitions, two U.S. officials said Wednesday.
This would be the first sale of armed drones approved since the U.S. government established a policy in February for exports of the new type of weapons that have played a key role in U.S. military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.
Italy would be only the second country to be approved to buy armed drones after Britain, which has been using them since 2007, according to the officials who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly ahead of a formal announcement later Wednesday.
The Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified U.S. lawmakers late Tuesday about the possible sale, which is valued at $129.6 million, with privately held General Atomics to serve as the prime contractor, the officials said.
Italy has been asking the United States since 2012 to add weapons to two unarmed MQ-9 Reapers, whose sale was first approved in 2009. Turkey has also requested to buy armed drones from the United States.
Initially U.S. lawmakers had concerns, ultimately spurring an interagency review that produced the new drone export policy.
U.S. lawmakers have 15 days to block the sale but such action is rare since deals are carefully vetted before Congress is formally notified.
The proposed sale includes 156 AGM-114R2 Hellfire II missiles built by Lockheed Martin Corp, 20 GBU-12 laser-guided bombs, 30 GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions and other armaments, according to the officials.
One official said any exports of drones, armed or not, require a case-by-case assessment and close scrutiny, but the sale was ultimately approved because Italy was a key ally and partner of the United States.
"It's not a decision we've taken lightly, and it's symbolic of our trust in Italy as a partner," the official said. "Italy is a responsible member of the international community and they have been with us in every significant recent NATO and U.S.-led operation."
Italy asked for the drones to support NATO and coalition operations, increase operational flexibility, and better protect deployed Italian forces.
The new U.S. export policy maintains "a strong presumption of denial" of sales of the biggest drones like the MQ-9 - Category I aircraft that have a range of at least 300 km (186 miles) and can carry a payload of at least 500 kg (1,102 pounds). It allows such exports on rare occasions.
Under the policy, buyers of military drones must agree to strict conditions, including a ban on using the drones for unlawful surveillance or to crack down on their domestic populations.
(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)