Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are crucial technologies for modern military operations. Whether for persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or integrated overwatch and strike operations, the U.S. has prototyped and operationalized a range of unmanned aircraft over the past 25 years. As the nation now positions itself to compete against high-end peer threats, American success depends upon leveraging the value of unmanned aerial systems across the spectrum of combat. Yet for the purposes of international export, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which was established to control nuclear proliferation, defines unmanned systems as nuclear missiles.
The U.S. cannot fully realize the potential of UAV in coalition operations without a fundamental shift in this policy.
Other nations have carefully examined how the U.S. leveraged unmanned aerial systems across its military operations, and now seek this advantage for themselves. Indeed, at least 101 nations operate UAV in a military capacity today. Teal Group’s 2019/2020 Market Study projects UAV production will rise from $7.3 billion annually in 2019 to $10.2 billion in 2029, totaling $98.9 billion in the next 10 years. Research spending could add another $61 billion over the decade. This market demand is here to stay.
Despite this demand, the U.S. defense industrial base is restricted from exporting these systems, even to key U.S. allies and security partners. The MTCR, of which the United States is a founding member, is a voluntary, informal agreement among participating states “to limit the proliferation of missiles and missile technology,” according to its website. Yet under this regime, founded in 1987, UAV are just as tightly restricted as intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The Chinese product now doesn’t lack technology, it only lacks market share.Chinese military analyst Song Zhongping
The increasing divergence between export policy, military requirements, and reality in the global marketplace is a dangerous impediment to current and future U.S.-led coalitions. Security partners are, and will long continue to be, critical to ensuring the political legitimacy and combat effectiveness of any military operation. Yet these same partners are largely barred from importing and operating unmanned aerial systems, undermining allies’ ability to fully tap the value of these systems.
More insidiously, export restrictions are driving America’s security partners into the arms of China, which is using this market vacuum to expand its influence, gain an intelligence advantage, and, perhaps, surreptitiously compromise the ability of potential partners to integrate with U.S. forces.
Unmanned aerial systems should not be treated as if they were nuclear missiles. They should be removed from the MTCR and regulated as any other combat aircraft.
Case Study: Jordan Turns to China
When the Royal Jordanian Air Force first displayed their Chinese-built remotely piloted aircraft at the Special Operations Forces Exposition and Conference in May 2018, it was hardly a surprise to U.S. military officials: For years, the United States had denied Jordan’s repeated requests for U.S.-built remotely piloted aircraft.
Without a U.S. source, Jordan’s decision to acquire long-endurance surveillance and reconnaissance from China was necessary and rational. At the same time, it signaled a fissure in the U.S. relationship and now presents significant security implications for cooperative military operations between Jordan and the U.S.
Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—all U.S. security partners—have also procured Chinese drones, as have Algeria, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Uzbekistan, and others. The growing list demonstrates China’s desire and ability to sell UAV hardware to nations with long-term ties to the U.S.
“The Chinese product now doesn’t lack technology, it only lacks market share,” Chinese military analyst Song Zhongping told theAssociated Press in 2018. “And the United States restricting its arms exports is precisely what gives China a great opportunity.”
The Problem with ‘Made in China’
The migration of traditional U.S. partners and allies to Chinese military hardware signals an erosion of key security relationships and the growing influence of China in regions important to the United States. The reliance of U.S. partners on China for training, sustainment, intelligence processing, and command and control (C2) systems strengthens these nations’ ties to China.
Chinese drones pose serious security risks to coalition and U.S. networks, sensors, and tools because they provide China the opportunity to exploit U.S. technologies and operations, even when flown by other nations. China maintains control of the C2 systems that are necessary to operate these UAV. This gives them the opportunity to collect on every aspect of operations, from sensors, to geolocation, to data messaging. When operating Chinese UAV platforms with coalition assets, China gains valuable insight into operations, means and methods, targets, and CONOPS (concept of operations). As a result, procuring Chinese systems effectively bars partners from participating in certain coalition operations, which in turn imposes a greater burden on the U.S. These security risks also limit the sharing of intelligence, further weakening relationships.
For operational security reasons, the United States cannot integrate partners with Chinese systems into coalition operations—and not simply because of technical incompatibilities, such as data links. Interoperability with allies and security partners requires full integration into the air tasking order, mission objectives, the sharing of intelligence, and collaborative targeting and tactics. Integration of Chinese UAV into coalition operations would help China collect data on U.S. operations, signals, and systems.
China maintains a strong hold on the command and control elements of their drones, the data links, ground station software and computers, and other controls that enable operations. As a result, China could potentially monitor activity and even collect intelligence from these drones in its efforts to learn about coalition operations, discern potential high-value targets, and assess status of forces.
When U.S. allies and security partners acquire Chinese unmanned systems, American bilateral and military relations are weakened, and coalition operations are dismantled. Without changes to U.S. export policy, China will continue to expand its market—and its sphere of influence—into regions critical to the economic and national security interests of the United States.
Given the long life span of these systems, the rift in critical partnerships is long term. Thus, rather than creating stability and decreasing risk for the U.S. and its allies, the MTCR drives allies toward adversaries, inhibits the U.S. ability to conduct integrated operations, and provides crucial intelligence to China, all while stimulating the innovation of the Chinese drone industry.
The Operational Value of Sharing Systems
The most effective strategy to achieve success in coalition operations is to ensure our security partners and allies operate the same unmanned aerial systems as the U.S. With the superior range, endurance, multisensor packages, and weapons magazine, the most capable American systems offer allies genuine force multipliers.
Operating the same systems means partners can burden-share with the United States, freeing U.S. assets for other global commitments or increasing force density where required. When allies operate the same UAV, such as the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper, or future unmanned aerial systems, machine-to-machine data transfer is seamless, intelligence processing and sharing is enhanced, and flexibility in operations is dramatically increased. When allies operate a Chinese-made UAV, however, all these strategic advantages are lost.
One remotely piloted aircraft operator recalled a mission that demonstrated the opportunity costs when allies and partners operate incompatible UAV. Tasked to take over an orbit from a U.K. asset, the handoff of the target was exceedingly difficult and nearly failed. Because the two systems were not interoperable, crews had to transfer tracking of the target—an individual in a truck—by describing coordinates over the phone, a time-consuming and imprecise methodology that proved “almost pointless.”
“We couldn’t data-share. As a result, [the U.K. operator is] passing the coordinates, over the phone, for a vehicle with a last-known heading, going this direction, an approximate miles per hour, and a description. But the target was in a city with such traffic density that we just couldn’t find it.”
By contrast, another operational handoff with a partner that had an interoperable system was seamless.
“With real-time data-sharing, I literally could pull up on my computer screen his exact sensor and double click on it with my mouse to slew my sensor to exactly where they’re looking. It’s instantaneous and they’re looking exactly where my crosshairs are and confirm—in a dynamic, dense, and often confusing environment—that we are on the exact car.”
The interoperability of the two systems enabled a quick, precise handoff and positive confirmation of an elusive target in a challenging, complicated, and dynamic environment.
The Missile Technology Control Regime
The MTCR was established by the G-7 industrialized nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K., and the United States) to strengthen nuclear nonproliferation efforts by addressing the “most destabilizing delivery system for such weapons”—ballistic and cruise missiles. Although the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons has long been the foundation of global nonproliferation efforts, the premise behind creating the new regime was that limiting the transfer of missiles and missile technologies would pose an additional barrier to rogue actors obtaining nuclear capability.
In 1992, the regime altered its charter to combat the proliferation of any weapon of mass destruction (WMD). As described by then-chair of the MTCR, Ambassador Piet de Klerk, “It was decided to enlarge the scope to not only missiles but all unmanned delivery vehicles, for all weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons.”
The Missile Technology Control Regime is an “informal political understanding”—not a treaty—and is not binding in any statutory or legal manner. The strictly voluntary MTCR has no jurisdictional oversight nor any power of enforcement. According to DOD’s Defense Technology Security Administration, “the Guidelines and Annex are implemented by each Partner in accordance with its national laws and legislation.” Thus, national statutes take priority over the MTCR Guidelines and Annex.
Still, MTCR participants are expected to unilaterally adhere to a common set of export controls on WMD delivery systems defined by the MTCR Guidelines and Annex, a “list of controlled items including virtually all key equipment, materials, software, and technology needed for missile development, production, and operation.” Current U.S. export policy for UAV closely follows the MTCR.
The MTCR Annex divides missiles and UAVs into Category 1, which includes systems capable of carrying a 500 kg (or greater) payload more than 300 km one way, and Category 2, for systems that offer less than 300 km of range.
Category 1 items and their subsystems are considered highly sensitive; nations are instructed to take an “unconditional strong presumption of denial regardless of the purpose of the export.” The Guidelines also acknowledge that “the decision to transfer remains the sole and sovereign judgment of the government.”
Enabling the Proliferation of Irresponsible Actors
Military requirements calling for UAV capability, coupled with the MTCR’s “strong presumption of denial,” have driven many nations to circumvent the controls by acquiring highly capable unmanned systems that RAND Corp. calls “near-Category 1 UAV.” Falling just short of the Category 1, 500 kg payload threshold enables the suppliers to avoid more serious restrictions. Advancing technology means manufacturers can skirt MTCR Category 1 while still providing similar mission effects.
Contrary to the intent of the regime, treating UAV platforms as if they were missiles creates a market vacuum for unethical actors to export UAV technology without appropriate controls. The growing export of “near-Category 1” systems demonstrates how ineffective the MTCR is in this regard. The challenge posed to nonproliferation efforts is the inability of responsible actors to monitor, influence, and control the transfer and use of these technologies.
It is well-known that China does not expect, demand, or enforce any limitations on the employment or end-use of its weapons. This, taken in conjunction with the unviable restrictions on Category 1 UAV sales and the gaming involved in marketing near-Category 1 products, further points to the ineffectiveness of the MTCR in controlling the proliferation of unmanned systems.
The Future Force Requires UAVs
The developmental path for unmanned aerial systems will diverge even further from MTCR relevance in the future. While the presence of a pilot and/or crew may seem like a reasonable way to define UAV export categories, this will not remain a viable threshold over the long term. Unmanned aerial vehicles will become less and less manpower-intensive over time.
Future autonomous, intelligence-gathering systems will not require preplanned routing like that of autopilot flight management, but will instead enable these aircraft to operate with unpredictable but rational maneuvering. As described in the Mitchell Institute’s major publication, “Restoring America’s Military Competitiveness: Mosaic Warfare,” they will avoid threats and seek out optimized looks at target sets or other entities of interest, autonomously collaborating and deconflicting with each other.
For weaponized systems, humans will continue to be involved in the kill chain, but their roles and responsibilities will evolve. Today, much of pilots’ and operators’ workload is associated with identifying the target, complying with rules of engagement and commander limitations, refining the weapon aim point, and maneuvering the vehicle into a position of launch to optimize target effects. Unmanned aircraft in the future will be capable of autonomous, collaborative, and dynamic maneuvering, operating as “loyal wingmen” in formation with a manned aircraft where human pilots act as mission commanders responsible for UAV in autonomous flight.
The definitions and controls imposed by the MTCR are clearly mismatched to this reality. Such weapons are not cruise missiles on kamikaze missions, but rather specialized aircraft conducting innovative, conventional combat missions.
Treat UAVs Like Conventional Aircraft
The MTCR weakens the ability of U.S. partners to achieve their broader security objectives. Ensuring that allies and security partners share the same systems creates seamless coalition operations that can meet the physical and operational challenges of the 21st century.
While many nations are using “near-Category 1” vehicles to skirt MTCR trade restrictions, Category 1 systems are more often the clear and best choice for a security partner. Greater size and fuel load confer longer persistence, increased area coverage, and greater mission flexibility. The larger sensor packages of a Category 1 UAV provide higher-quality data, and with a larger weapon load-out, these systems can retain weapon employment options through the duration of their sortie.
Instead of treating unmanned aerial systems as missiles, a more effective and enduring approach would be to treat them as conventional aircraft and subject them to the same conventional arms export policies in place for combat aircraft. This supports the national security interests and objectives of the United States and its allies, while still protecting critical technologies from misuse or exploitation.
The Royal Jordanian Air Force recently sold its six armed, Chinese-built CH-4s to the Libyan National Army. Led by Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan National Army controls most of eastern Libya and is fighting against the U.N.-recognized unity government in Tripoli. While Jordan supports Haftar, without end-use controls, the international community lacked any mechanism to obstruct the sale by the kingdom.
Jordan’s decision to sell the drones to the Libyan opposition in 2019 was a surprise. The fleet has at least another decade or more of operational life, though reports indicate Jordan was unhappy with the drones’ “heavy maintenance requirements and limited capacity.”
Unlike U.S. foreign military sales, which include robust training, sustainment, and support packages, much cheaper Chinese systems likely do not. Without support from a dedicated security partner like the United States, buyers may be unprepared, ill-equipped, untrained, and without needed spares to maintain a healthy, robust fleet. Indeed, after selling its CH-4Bs, Jordan again expressed interest in procuring U.S. unmanned aerial systems.
The window for the United States to re-engage valued security partners through the deliberate export of unmanned aerial systems may not be open for long. China is learning critical operational lessons from their unmanned systems and developing new and improved unmanned aircraft. The United States should not be willing to cede market share, and the insight and leverage that comes with it, to China. Continuing to include unmanned aerial systems within the guidelines of the MTCR harms critical U.S. relationships, U.S. industry, and coalition operations.
The Trump administration and Congress should modernize UAV export policy, including:
Congress should affirm the U.S. commitment to non-proliferation in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act and also clearly define unmanned aerial vehicles as aircraft, not cruise missiles, and therefore not subject to the MTCR guidelines, annexes, or any other U.S. policy driven by the MTCR. This language should further direct that military UAVs be subject to the same export considerations as other military aircraft
Additional language in the 2021 NDAA should seek for UAV the same co-development, co-production, and any other privilege or consideration afforded to military aircraft for the purposes of direct commercial sale or foreign military sale.
The administration should capitalize on a limited window of opportunity to re-engage with key partners that may be wavering in their Chinese UAV partnerships. Of key symbolic and strategic priority is a deliberate goal of exporting American UAV capabilities to Jordan.
These actions will begin the process of normalizing unmanned aerial systems’ export policy. The future of warfare will depend evermore on UAV technology. The consequences of conflating unmanned aerial systems with nuclear missiles is dangerously detrimental to U.S. security interests. Unmanned systems are aircraft, not missiles, and for too long the MTCR has distorted the normal balance of national security and economic interests against the fear of nuclear and WMD proliferation. An immediate and significant change in U.S. policy must occur before more damage is done.
Heather Penney is a senior resident fellow for the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, where she conducts research on defense policy with a focus on leveraging the decisive advantage of aerospace power. Penney worked for over a decade in the defense industry focused on defense budgets, supporting program execution, and campaign management.