The US State Department is eyeing changes to trade export laws that would ease rules on sales of unmanned systems like the Predator. (US Air Force)
FARNBOROUGH, ENGLAND — Long-awaited changes to how the US handles the export of unmanned systems are coming, although anyone in industry hoping for a quick turnaround may be disappointed.
“We think there will be a lot to say in due course that is very helpful to exporters and also to our allies who have been hoping to take advantage of the very good technology US companies produce, but right now that process is still internal to the US government,” said Ken Handelman, deputy assistant secretary for defense trade controls in the Department of State’s Bureau of Political and Military Affairs.
“So please, stay tuned. I know we have been saying that for a long time,” Handelman said. “We have listened to that, we know it is important for industry to hear that, but please stay tuned.”
While declining to go into details on what he termed “intense conversations” about the future of unmanned system exports, Handelman did say the review would look at what some in industry have identified as a central restriction on those machines to allies.
“The Missile Technology Control Regime [MTCR], which remains a hugely important tool [for] nonproliferation policy with our allies, sometimes has unintended consequences,” he said. “So yes, that is part of the consideration, but more than that I am unable to say right now.”
The MTCR is an international agreement signed by 34 nations, including the United States. Established in 1987 primarily to curb the spread of long-range missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, the MTCR causes the “presumption of denial” for sale of any system with a payload of 500 kilograms and a range of 300 kilometers.
As a nonproliferation tool, it has worked well. But because of the wording, unmanned systems such as the Predator are restricted, even if their payload is entirely surveillance based and without weapons.
While the government can still offer waivers for the sale of unmanned systems, it has identified the MTCR as a major hurdle toward increasing global exports.
Handelman made his comments as part of a panel on export control organized by the Aerospace Industries Association, an American trade group. He was one of three US government representatives speaking at the event, held at the Farnborough International Airshow.
The panelist’s appearance was part of a concerted effort to reach out from the export control world to those directly affected by its decisions, said Beth McCormick, director of the Pentagon’s Defense Technology Security Administration.
“We have tried to show our face here so we’re not these ‘horrible people who control technology,’ ” she said. “We have started to have a presence by our agencies at these kind of international events, and started doing so about a year ago.”
McCormick added that the “face to face” interaction with the international community that comes to events like Farnborough is very helpful. ■