Time for US to treat modern drones like aircraft, not missiles
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President Trump’s decision last month to sell MQ-9B Guardian drones to India represents a significant shift in U.S. drone export policy.

International transfers of drones like the MQ-9 are restricted by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an anachronism from 30 years ago when the MTCR was signed and drones functioned more like missiles than aircraft. The Trump administration’s decision to sell MQ-9s to India is a good first step to treating drones like aircraft, which are not covered under the MTCR. But if the administration follows up with additional drone sales to other nations, it will be important for the U.S. to clearly distinguish drones from missiles in order to preserve the MTCR’s norm against missile proliferation.

The MTCR is a voluntary, non-legally binding agreement among 35 countries to limit transfers of missiles that could be used as delivery vehicles for weapons of mass destruction. Missiles that can carry a 500-kilogram payload 300 kilometers or more are classified as “Category I” systems. States agree to an “unconditional strong presumption of denial” of transferring them abroad, which should “only occur on rare occasions.”

The MTCR is not legally binding, so countries can choose to overcome this strong presumption of denial and transfer Category I systems when they desire, but too many transfers can undermine the integrity of the regime.

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While the MTCR has not stopped rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran from advancing their missile programs, overall the MTCR has shown success in slowing ballistic missile proliferation. The MTCR has had far less success in slowing drone proliferation, however. In addition to ballistic and cruise missiles, the MTCR covers “complete unmanned aerial vehicle systems (including cruise missiles, target drones, and reconnaissance drones).” Including drones made sense 30 years ago when the MTCR was signed and unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, functioned much like cruise missiles, but this classification has become increasingly untenable as drone technology has evolved.

Today’s drones operate like aircraft, not one-way missiles. Advanced drones like the RQ-4 Global Hawk are sophisticated airplanes and a far cry from the disposable target and reconnaissance drones the MTCR mentions. Technology even allows traditional human-inhabited (“manned”) aircraft to be equipped with sensors, autonomy, and communications links to be “optionally piloted” — flown by a human in the cockpit or remotely like a drone, blurring the line between drones and traditional aircraft. This makes the MTCR’s restrictions on transferring drones but not equivalent human-inhabited aircraft increasingly senseless.

F-16 fighters can carry a 500-kilogram payload 300 kilometers, but sales are permitted because the MTCR doesn’t cover aircraft. Would the optionally piloted QF-16 fighter be covered by the MTCR, though? The difference is software and sensors, not their payload and range. Discriminating between platforms based on whether or not there is a human onboard doesn’t make sense when a person can hop in the cockpit one minute and out the next and any airplane can be converted into a drone.

Technology evolves and it isn’t surprising that policies that made sense 30 years ago need updating today. The United States has been slow to adapt to this new reality, though. The U.S. has limited transfers of Category I drones, approving transfers only to a few close allies. Even in those cases, the U.S. bureaucracy has sometimes moved abysmally slow, taking four years to approve the sale of armed MQ-9 Reaper drones to Italy. Meanwhile China, who is not a signatory to the MTCR, has not held back, transferring its Reaper-class CH-4 drone to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, all close U.S. partners.

Self-limiting drone exports has not stopped proliferation and harms U.S. interests in tangible ways. Close U.S. partners have turned to China after being rebuffed by the United States. U.S. drone manufacturers need to compete in the global marketplace if they are to maintain their edge in a rapidly evolving technology area. The biggest beneficiary of U.S. reluctance to sell drones has been China, which has been able to deepen its defense relationships with U.S. partners and grow its defense industry.

The Trump administration’s approval of the MQ-9B sale to India is a good first step towards reversing the Obama administration’s counterproductive self-limitations on drone exports, but United States must follow the sale by clearly communicating the rules it will follow for which transfers are permitted.

The MTCR has shown success in slowing missile proliferation, and it is in U.S. interests to preserve the MTCR’s norm against missile transfers. The United States should state that it will begin treating recoverable uninhabited aircraft, or drones, the same as equivalent human-inhabited aircraft that are not captured under the MTCR. Non-recoverable one-way vehicles, on the other hand, the U.S. would continue to treat like missiles and limit transfers under the MTCR.

This approach offers the best way forward for adapting to changing technology, while preserving the MTCR overall.

Paul Scharre is a senior fellow and Director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He is co-author of the recent CNAS report “Drone Proliferation: Policy Choices for the Trump Administration.”


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