(Source: Defense News, 18 June 2018.)
A new RAND report (a source for research on policy ideas and analysis) studying the spread of unmanned aerial vehicles suggests that the current export controls for drones might be hurting the US more than helping.
US competitors like China and Russia are filling the void that has been left by the limitation on US drone exports in markets like the Middle East where the US historically dominated in sales. Over the past several years, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates (UAE) were denied requests to buy American drones, and have since turned to China to purchase similar systems. The Trump administration recently revealed a new set of export policies concerning military technology in an attempt to facilitate the transfer of military technology, but the changes do not change the status of drones under the Missile Technology Control Regime.
How does the MTCR work?
The MTCR is a voluntary export control group of 35 nations who collaborate to prevent signatories from proliferating longer-range cruise and ballistic missile technology. The arms control regime was extended to UAVs because early iterations of drones were considered a subset of cruise missile technology due to their active guidance system.
The regime divides missiles into two categories. This article will cover Category I.
- Capable of delivering a 500 kg payload more than 300 km
- Sale of category I systems is restricted by a “strong presumption of denial” (meaning they are only exported in rare circumstances)
- MQ-9 Reaper, RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-4 Triton are well-known unmanned systems that fall under this category
RAND found that 10 nations use category I drones, and more than 15 use near-category I systems that register just below the MTCR’s payload and distance restrictions. The report states that these increased proliferation rates are due to countries like China, Israel, and the UAE who are not part of the MCTR. More countries are expected to follow suit which will cause a “growing threat to U.S. and allied military operations,” the report says.
While category I systems can deploy missiles, their main threat lies in “their ability to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations against U.S. forces prior to hostilities,” according to RAND. “Adversaries that would otherwise have difficulty detecting U.S. force deployments, monitoring U.S. operations, and maintaining targeting data on U.S. units can employ UAVs to maintain situational awareness of U.S. capabilities.”
The report identifies Russia, China, and Iran as unfriendly nations that will try to utilize drones to complicate US military operations.
A US-sized hole
Due to restrictions on US drone exports, competitors have established themselves in a market Rand expects to “grow from about $6 billion in 2015 to about $12 billion in 2025.”
“What you are enabling the competition to do is not just to sell some hardware,” Linden Blue, General Atomic’s chief executive, told reporters during an Aug. 16, 2017 roundtable at the company’s headquarters in Poway, California. “You’re enabling it to build a customer base for at least 20 years, I would say. You’re enabling them to build a logistics system. It will take them many years to get to where we are right now, but you’re helping them start out. They should be very thankful.”