This is a developing story. Stay tuned for updates.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. State Department has officially loosened restrictions on exporting military 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 kilometers per hour will no longer be subject to the “presumption of denial” that, in effect, blocked most international sales of drones like the MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk.
R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary bureau of political-military affairs, announced the change to how the U.S. interprets the Missile Technology Control Regime, or MTCR, on Friday. News that the change was imminent, and that it would focus on reinterpreting the MTCR with a focus on speed, was first reported Thursday by Defense News.
The U.S. government’s interpretation of the MTCR had previously 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 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.
Cooper stressed that the UAVs covered 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 MTCR was primarily introduced to regulate the sale of cruise missiles abroad, but the interpretation also covers certain unmanned vehicles. The U.S. has been exploring changing how it interprets the MTCR for some time, with discussions centered around the “presumption of denial” clause for category-1 UAVs.
Under that phrasing, export officials need special circumstances to allow the sale of drones. However, under the new guidance, those officials would now consider proposed sales using the same criteria they apply to other military exports.
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.
While broadly seen by the defense industry as a positive step forward, one industry source expressed concerns that the changes announced on 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 direct commercial sales than 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, adding 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.
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.”
At the same time, Horowitz says 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.”