This is a developing story. Stay tuned for updates.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. State Department has officially loosened restrictions on exporting military-grade unmanned aerial vehicles to foreign nations, a move long sought by the defense industry.

Under a new policy announced Friday, unmanned aerial systems that fly at speeds below 800 kph will no longer be subject to the “presumption of denial” that, in effect, blocked most international sales of drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper and the RQ-4 Global Hawk.

R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary bureau of political-military affairs, announced a change to how the United States interprets the Missile Technology Control Regime, or MTCR, Friday. News that the change was imminent, and that it would focus on reinterpreting the regulations with a focus on speed, was first reported Thursday by Defense News.

The U.S. government’s interpretation of the export controls had led to a blanket denial of most countries’ requests to buy “category-1” systems capable of carrying 500-kilogram payloads for more than 300 kilometers. Instead of having a “presumption of denial” for those drones, where export officials needed 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 as they do for other military exports.

Cooper stressed that the UAVs covere includes “no risk for weapons of mass destruction delivery. Higher-speed systems such as cruise missiles, hypersonic aerial vehicles, and advanced unmanned combat aerial vehicles are not affected by this revision.”

The regulations were primarily introduced to regulate the sale of cruise missiles abroad, but the interpretation also covers certain unmanned vehicles. The United States has been exploring a change in how to interpret the MTCR for some time, with discussions centered around the “presumption of denial” clause for category-1 UAVs.

Speaking at the Hudson Institute shortly after Cooper’s remarks, Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Chris Ford stressed said the administration plans to keep pushing other nations in the agreement to come to a similar stance, but that “the United States is not willing to let U.S. interests be forever held hostage” by international decision makers.

Ford also said that there is a specific member of the MTCR “seems to have prioritized reflexive opposition to anything the United States proposes,” and would block any potential changes. Although not listed by name, Ford later indicated he was talking about Russia.

In a statement, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the move a “reckless decision” that makes it “more likely that we will export some of our deadliest weaponry to human rights abusers across the world.” Menendez has been central in trying to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia over human rights concerns.

Industry impact

The decision primarily opens up sales opportunities for General Atomics and Northrop Grumman, which manufacture multiple slow-moving UAS impacted by the presumption of denial clause. 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.

Immediately after the announcement, both companies issued statement heralding the change.

“It is critical for our national security that our export policies continue to keep pace with the rapid evolution of technology and support collaboration with our allies,” said Northrop Grumman spokesman Tim Paynter. He pointed to the company’s MQ-8 Fire Scout as another UAS that could be more widely exported as a result of the new interpretation.

In addition, Niki Johnson, General Atomic’s vice president for government affairs and strategic communications, said “We welcome the changes announced today that will alter the treatment of General Atomics’ UAS under U.S. export policy. We look forward to this announcement leading to approvals for sales to a larger portion of the international market.”

Ford declined to speculate about how much money may trade hands as a result of the change, aside from broadly saying he expects it will have a “ripple effect” for countries who may be on the market for unmanned systems.

While broadly seen by the defense industry as a positive step forward, one industry source expressed concerns that the changes announced Friday could ultimately be toothless. In April 2018, the Trump administration announced a number of policy reforms aimed at speeding up the sales process, such as allowing certain UAS to be exported via the Direct Commercial Sales process as opposed to the more laborious Foreign Military Sales process. But those changes did not have the intended consequences, the industry official said.

“Implementation of the 2018 policy was very slow. It did not actually lead to that many new approvals in terms of countries that we can export to. So while we think this change will help us overcome the MTCR question during the policy review process, we still think that there is a higher hurdle for UAS within the conventional arms transfer policy ordeal,” the source said.

Companies could still hit “brick walls” within the normal State Department arms sale process if, for instance, the department finds that drone sales negatively alter the military balance among countries in a given region.

“The question for us is: Does this lead to policy approvals that allow us to go sell?” the source said. This person added that if sales do not immediately begin to move forward, it’s possible that — should former Vice President Joe Biden win the presidential election in November — the incoming Democratic administration could roll back the MTCR interpretation changes.

During a phone call with reporters, Cooper stressed that the change in policy will not result in a blanket approval for all UAS sales.

“It is case by case,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of addressing the [MTCR] requirement, because while UAS systems vary widely in their sophistication and application, it’s incumbent upon the United States that we ensure that the systems we sell are used responsibly and will not threaten our interest or those of our allies.”

Rachel Stohl, vice president for defense issues at the Stimson Center, called the unilateral decision by the White House “yet another affront to international agreements and global arms controls.”

“Let me be clear: A presumption of denial is not a ‘no,' ” Stohl said. “It just means you have to work a little harder to get to ‘yes’ and ensure that a lethal system that can change the nature of conflict, has raised serious questions and concerns about the legitimacy, legality, and strategic efficacy of their use, and has demonstrably impacted civilian lives is in the best interest of the United States.

“Once again, the Trump administration is focused on short-term economic gain rather than medium- to long-term security and foreign policy interests.”

But Michael Horowitz, a professor and director of the Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the change is long overdue.

“Treating uninhabited aircraft as missiles for export policy purposes doesn’t work,” Horowitz said. “It has allowed China to capture a significant chunk of the drone export market, including with U.S. allies and partners.”

However, Horowitz added that the decision to focus on speed may miss the big picture. “Rather than simply treating uninhabited aircraft as aircraft for export purposes, the new policy creates a speed test that addresses issues for current platforms,” he said. “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.”

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.

More In Industry