Updated 7/24/20 at 9:40 AM with comments from Horowitz and 11:02 AM with comments from another source on potential MTCR interpretation changes. This story may be updated throughout the day.
WASHINGTON — White House officials are expected to announce Friday a new interpretation of an export control agreement, which the defense industry hopes will lead to increased sales of military unmanned vehicles abroad, sources tell Defense News.
The move has been expected for several weeks, but no firm timetable had been announced for the change in how the U.S. approaches the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an agreement among the United States and 34 other nations that governs the sale of missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Notably, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford is appearing at a Hudson Institute event Friday afternoon, billed as discussing “U.S. efforts to reform the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in light of advances in unmanned aerial systems technology and how U.S. policy will meet this complex and evolving challenge.”
The MTCR was primarily introduced to regulate the sale of cruise missiles abroad, but the interpretation also covers certain unmanned vehicles. Currently, the U.S. government’s interpretation of the MTCR leads to a blanket denial of most countries’ requests to buy “category-1” systems capable of carrying 500-kilogram payloads for more than 300 kilometers.
The expected change, first reported by Reuters in June, would essentially alter how the U.S. government views those systems. Instead of having a “presumption of denial” for those cat-1 UAVs, meaning export officials need special circumstances to allow the sale of the drones, the new guidance would mean those officials would now consider proposed sales using the same criteria they do other military exports.
However, the exact details of what will be announced Friday are unclear. Two sources told Defense News that the adjustment could focus on easing restrictions based on the speed of the drone, essentially removing the presumption of denial for any system traveling under 800 kilometres per hour. Such a move would not put the United States out of compliance with the MTCR, but will codify exactly how the U.S. government interprets it, stressed one source with knowledge.
“We’re trying to be transparent. So much of the conversation about the MTCR is about making sure that whatever decisions countries make about allowing UAS exports to happen, that it’s verifiable, justifiable,” the source said. “We’re not just willy-nilly exporting stuff. We’re being sober, responsible. We’re looking at various details, and this happens to be another detail that we’re telling everyone we’re going to look at. ... We have clear rules.”
If that change occurs, it would follow a 2017 concept pushed by the Trump administration to the other MTCR member states. That idea never advanced beyond early discussions.
“This seems like a big deal, because it really is a heavy lift/big change for internal State Dept., but is still so far behind where UAS are going that it will be an irrelevant policy when it hits the street,” another official said, expressing a belief that long term the U.S. needs to account for faster UAV developments. “It will help MQ-9, which is important, but simply does not go far enough fast enough.”
Most medium-altitude, long-endurance systems like General Atomics’ MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper fly at slow speeds, with the Reaper clocking in with a cruise speed of 230 mph, or 370 kph, according to an Air Force fact sheet. Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk, a high-altitude drone used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, flies at a cruise speed of about 357 mph, or 575 kph.
In an exclusive interview this week, Lt. Gen. Charles Hooper, the outgoing head of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, said the United States has made “quite a bit of progress in moving forward on the issue of UAVs. Of course, it will continue to be on a case-by-case basis, but I think we’ve made some significant progress moving forward.”
Hooper also stressed that China is attempting to sell UAVs to the many countries that the U.S. will not sell to, a fact that proponents of changing the export regulations frequently point to as a need to change the rules.
Michael Horowitz, a professor and director of the Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that “Treating uninhabited aircraft as missiles for export policy purposes doesn’t work. It has allowed China to capture a significant chunk of the drone export market, including with U.S. allies and partners.”
Should speed be the deciding factor in the announcement, it would mean “the new policy is a minor repair that does not resolve the underlying issue,” he added. “Uninhabited aircraft are not missiles, so they should not be regulated as missiles. Rather than simply treating uninhabited aircraft as aircraft for export purposes, the new policy creates a speed test that addresses issues for current platforms. Depending on implementation, this could be a policy improvement, but it could also lead to issues down the road as the uninhabited aircraft category evolves.”
This is not the first attempt by the Trump administration to loosen regulations on the sale of UAVs abroad. In April 2018, the White House announced changes in policy allowing companies to sell certain unmanned aircraft through direct commercial sales to international militaries rather than having to go through the more laborious Foreign Military Sales process, where the U.S. government plays a large role in negotiating an agreement. It also struck rules that categorized unarmed drones with laser-designator technology as “strike enabling,” which grouped them with more highly restricted armed drones.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.