US alters category of armed drones to avoid MTCR rules

India one of the beneficiaries; protects US industry

IDD Bureau

In a move to provide cutting-edge drones or unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to its partner countries, the US has changed the ‘categorisation’ of specific  UAS, taking it out of the ambit of the ‘strong denial’ category of the restrictive missile technology control regime (MTCR). 

US President Donald J. Trump, on July 24, lowered a subset of UAS from category I, with highest  restrictions, to category II, allowing easier exports without getting bogged down with MTCR rules. All other US rules will continue to apply on such equipment.

“ President  has decided to invoke our national discretion to treat a carefully selected subset of MTCR Category I UAS, which cannot travel faster than 800 kilometers per hour, as Category II”.

White House

The MTCR, established 1987,  aims to limit the export of ballistic missiles and other UAS.  Under the existing rules, a  ‘category-1’ system is that which is capable of carrying 500-kilogram payloads for more than 300 kilometers. These fall under  the ‘strong presumption of denial’ 

“The United States has determined that it will overcome the MTCR’s strong presumption of denial for this UAS subset,” the White House statement said. Read it here

After Trump’s  orders,  India could be an immediate beneficiary,  as its looking to get some 30 such high-end drones from the US based General Atomics.  India was inducted into MTCR in 2016. The list includes Russia besides the NATO allies and countries like Japan and Australia. China is not a member of the MTCR. Notably, Israel, is not a signatory to the MTCR and is one of the countries that exports armed UAS to several countries, including India.

“It  will increase our national security by improving the capabilities of our partners and increase our economic security by opening the expanding UAS market to United States industry”, the White House statement said  

Why the Change

The US, in the past two years,  had been discussing the three-decade old categorization of weapons under the MTCR with 35 member countries, but has had no success  in the absence of consensus on this overdue reform.

“Not only do these outdated standards give an unfair advantage to countries outside of the MTCR and hurt United States industry, they also hinder our deterrence capability abroad by handicapping our partners and allies with subpar technology”.

White House

For long it has been felt that MTCR rules were appropriate for curtailing the sale of cruise missiles, but those should not club weapons and unmanned systems with it. Rather UAS should be looked at the same way as fighter jets.  Some time in 2017, American officials floated a ‘white paper’ during the plenary session on the MTCR, proposing new language to the treaty.

While MTCR Guidelines are critical in slowing proliferation and promoting peace and security, it is in dire need of modernization as it applies to UAS.  In a sector of rapidly evolving technology, the MTCR’s standards are more than three decades old

This action, of the US is consistent with MTCR Guidelines and the objectives of the April 2018 UAS Export Policy.

The export of UAS from the United States will continue to be subject to the rigorous review criteria outlined in the UAS Export Policy, the Conventional Arms Transfer Policy, and the Arms Export Control Act, as well as the specific nonproliferation criteria identified in the MTCR Guidelines. 

Approving or denying a UAS sale to any country is a decision by the US Government and takes into account US national security, nonproliferation, and foreign policy objectives, as well as the purchasing country’s ability to responsibly use and safeguard United States-origin technology. 

The move by the US shows MTCR has to evolve with time. The United States said “it also looks forward to all MTCR nations joining us in adopting this new standard”.

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