New export regime needed for drones

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The United States has relaxed its drone export policy, bringing into question the relevance of the existing arrangement guiding exports of drones, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Countries that were not allowed to purchase some U.S. drones under the previous understanding of MTCR guidelines now face fewer restrictions. While the United States is not likely to export lethal drones to governments that would undermine its national security objectives or those of its allies, the move should remind the international community that new regulation of drones is needed. Work on a new export regime must begin soon.

U.S. unilateralism

Until now, U.S. exports of large drones were subject to the restrictions set out in the MTCR, which was established in 1987 by the G7 countries, including Canada and the United States, and now includes 35 member states. The regime is not legally binding; rather it is “an informal political understanding among states that seek to limit the proliferation of missiles and missile technology.”

Under the MTCR, large drones and cruise missiles are both classified as Category I, Item 1, and their export is tightly controlled. This designation was applied to systems that could carry 500-kilogram payloads for 300 kilometres. U.S. armed drones in this category were exported only to traditional U.S. allies such as Italy, France, and the United Kingdom. Under the new U.S. policy, large drones that fly under 800 kilometres per hour, such as the MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk, will no longer be subjected to the same level of restriction.

The US had made some attempts to have the MTCR agreement altered, but it argued that member state Russia consistently acted as a spoiler. Eventually, it appears that the United States ran out of patience and decided to act unilaterally. As U.S. Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Chris Ford said, “The United States is not willing to let U.S. interests be forever held hostage.”

The US is likely to argue that the move does not mean that the country is no longer in compliance with the MTCR; instead, it is offering a revised interpretation of the voluntary agreement. Such unilateral action can be seen as yet another example of declining U.S. support for existing arms-control agreements that it sees as not in the national interest.

It can also be viewed as the U.S. government’s giving in to the demands of the domestic defence industry, which has long sought the easing of restrictions so that they can compete more effectively in a market currently dominated by China. General Atomics and Northrop Grumman, which produce medium-altitude, long-endurance drones that fly at speeds ranging from 370 kph to 575 kph, have been particularly persistent.

Trump administration attempts to change export policy can be seen as early as April 2018, when drone exports were reassigned to the Direct Commercial Sales process from the more stringent Foreign Military Sales process. At the same time, strike-enabling technologies, such as laser target designators, were newly designated as unarmed.

The changing reality

The U.S. government is right to point to the changing realities of drone exports and their wider proliferation, despite the MTCR guidelines. Turkey, a member of the MTCR, continues to export drones to states in crisis, such as Libya. It worked its way around the regime by developing its Bayraktar drone to fall in the less restricted Category II.

Indeed, the MTCR has never been the perfect instrument to regulate drones. The regime’s main objective is “to limit the risks of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by controlling exports of goods and technologies that could make a contribution to delivery systems (other than manned aircraft) for such weapons.”

Still, for a long while, the parties to the MTCR respected the voluntary restrictions on larger drones. The result has been fewer exports of these systems. Thus, it can be said that the MTCR has been important as a stopgap to control the proliferation of a class of drones. But a new reality is rendering old agreements obsolete.

China, which has “ostensibly agreed to abide by [MTCR] guidelines as they were first defined in 1987,” sells armed drones to countries accused of creating humanitarian crises, such as Saudi Arabia. Israel has come to a similar arrangement with MTCR, but has sold drones to India.

Now, more and more countries are acquiring drones for their militaries. According to the March 2020 update of the Drone Databook, 102 countries possess a total of 30,000 military drones. Thirty-five of the 102 possess the heavy class of armed drones. In the past decade alone, the number of countries operating military drones has risen by 58 per cent. Such dramatic increases make a rethinking of the global regulation of drones critical.

Constructing a new regulatory path

As Prof. Michael Horowitz of the University of Pennsylvania notes, the path forward is not easy at the MTCR, which requires consensus. But he suggests that the regime might find its way toward placing drones in the same exempt category as crewed aircraft. Doing so would, he believes, “reflect the technological reality and help preserve the integrity of the regime.”

Drones are not missiles. They require their own regulatory regime. As more states develop new systems of drones, a truly global agreement is needed. While a new arms-control arrangement seems unlikely under current global geopolitical conditions, countries can start laying the groundwork for a new regime by consulting with likeminded states.

Moreover, the focus on a new regime has several possibilities, from a standalone new regulation to an addition to an existing mechanism. For example, an amendment to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) could be one possible venue. As Rachel Stohl and Shannon Dick, the Vice President and a Research Analyst with the Stimson Centre, note while the ATT does not explicitly address armed drones it does so implicitly. Still, as Stohl and Dick also note, more thought has to be given to whether such a path would be sufficient and what needs to be done to respond to evolving technologies.

Canada and other countries that do not currently export whole drone systems contribute components and technologies found on these systems. Exported Canadian technologies are used on different drones around the world. A global export regime would ensure that Canada can, for example, review its exports to determine if they are contributing to humanitarian crises and abuses of human rights.

Drones have a major impact on conflict environments and affect regional and global security. Even as more state and non-state actors add drones to their arsenals, the attempt must be made to control the spread of these weapons. The results will not be perfect, but they could still provide a small measure of additional security for the world and its inhabitants.

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