Two agreements struck in 1987 have served U.S. interests well for most of their lives in terms of arms control and nonproliferation: the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, known as INF, and the Missile Technology Control Regime, a voluntary multilateral export control regime among 35 member states that seek to limit the proliferation of missiles and missile technology.

In the case of INF, that tenure is at its end. But MTCR should be vibrant for many years to come – so long as it can evolve to meet changing technologies and circumstances.

The MTCR is very different kind of agreement from the bilateral INF treaty. Nonproliferation of weapons technology is necessarily a team effort. Any country that can produce a weapon can also export it or its design to other countries. Resisting the market incentive to earn revenue from sales of dangerous arms and technologies requires voluntary self-restraint, reinforcement from like-minded partners, and monitoring. The MTCR is not a panacea, but it can be credited with slowing down or stopping several missile programs. Unlike the INF treaty, the major deficiency in the regime today is not one of blatant cheating, but rather the evolution of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in ways that were not envisioned by the drafters of the of the agreement in 1987.

Under the terms of the MTCR, member states agree that “there will be a strong presumption to deny” the export of unmanned aircraft that can carry a payload of more than 500 kilograms to a range of more than 300 kilometers. A cruise missile or ballistic missile is an unmanned aerial vehicle, and they should remain subject to strongest constraints of the MTCR. But what we think of today as UAVs – or more precisely, remotely piloted aircraft – should be treated more like manned aircraft, which are exempt from MTCR restrictions, rather than cruise missiles.

U.S. manufacturers produce a number of such systems – General Atomics’ Reaper and Predator, Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk, and others in development. We have been able to export such systems only to a small handful of countries because of our adherence to this strong presumption of denial provision. This state of affairs has become harmful to the United States because other countries, including China, which is not a member of the MTCR, are selling these systems to countries around the world. This is not just bad for the U.S. industrial base and economic security. It also has long term effects on U.S. armed forces’ interoperability and security cooperation with partner nations.

To its credit, the Trump administration has proposed a change to the MTCR to distinguish high-speed unmanned systems, such as cruise missiles, from the much slower aircraft like Reapers that have become so valuable for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

However, that proposed modification will occur – if ever – at the glacial pace typical of a multilateral, consensus-based entity like the MTCR. The U.S. first proposed this modification at the MTCR technical meeting in March 2018. It went back and discussed the proposal further at the next meeting in November 2018. Members recommended bringing it before a “policy” meeting of the MTCR, and the United States dutifully did so in December 2018. There is still no agreement. I fear that if we wait for unanimous consent before changing our policy with regard to the export of UAVs, we will have ceded most of the market and squandered a valuable technological competitive edge to China.

Bear in mind that the MTCR’s “strong presumption of denial” is merely an additional caveat with respect to UAVs. Their transfer will still be covered by a robust system of export control checks and restrictions undertaken for any aircraft or technology on the U.S. Munitions List. Withdrawing this constraint would not in any way deregulate the export of UAVs. It would simply align their regulation with other military systems such as fighter aircraft, tanks, and military helicopters.

Tom Callahan is vice president of strategy, innovation and evaluation at CRDF Global, a non-profit organization. He is a former deputy assistant secretary of state and member of the senior professional staff on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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