US declares it will breach arms control agreement to sell more drones

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A reaper drone in flight.
Author(s)
Chris Cole

This article was originally published on the Drone Wars website. Reused with permission.

The Trump administration announced on Friday (24 July) that it will breach the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) by unilaterally re-interpreting it in order to export armed drones.  The US has tried without success over the past four years to persuade other signatories of the agreement including the UK, Canada, France and Germany to make changes to allow unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS) to be exempt from the 1987 agreement.  However, much to their annoyance, other countries have stood firm.

In essence, the MTCR, regulates missile, rockets and similar technology including drones that can travel at least 300km into two categories; Category I are those able to travel that distance and deliver a payload of 500-kilogram; Category II are those able to travel the distance but not carry a 500 kg payload.  Signatories agree a ‘strong presumption of denial’ of exporting Category I systems. 

The US has unilaterally decided that it will now treat systems that fall into Category I but travel at less than 800km per hour – such as the Reaper and the Global Hawk – as falling into Category II.

In its statement, the Whitehouse declared:

“The 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 kilometres per hour, as Category II.  As such, the United States has determined that it will overcome the MTCR’s strong presumption of denial for this UAS subset.  This action …  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.

As we have reported since as far back as 2011, the drone industry has been lobbying to change export control rules, arguing that it is unfair that it is not allowed to export armed drones while other non-signatory countries – and it often points to China – are doing so. The reality, however, is that the very small number of countries that are exporting armed drones – including China – are exporting systems that are not as capable as the US systems and do not in fact breach Category I status, that is, they are not carrying payloads over 500kg.  Tellingly, Jordan, are trying to sell the drones it bought from China as they are unhappy with their performance.

While this change will no doubt profit large US defence companies including General Atomics and Northrop Grumman, it will undoubtedly increase global insecurity through the further proliferation of armed drones but also undermine and weaken international arms control.  Other  countries could now follow this precedent and unilaterally reinterpret arms control agreement to their own benefit.

The US is now likely to try to quickly agree contracts with a number of countries for Reaper and similar systems despite the fact that such sales will exacerbate regional tension and inflame conflicts. India, is perhaps at the front of the queue despite the deep tensions between India and Pakistan, while Saudi Arabia also likely high on the list in spite of its horrific bombing campaign in Yemen which continues to kill large numbers of civilians.

While there may be a feeling that the US Presidential election in November may well bring in a new administration which could reverse this decision, as Rachel Stohl of the Stimson Center writes at the end of  a helpful twitter thread  “the legacy of the Trump administration’s approach to arms sales will not change with an election. It will take years to undo the damage that has been done to the multilateral arms control system.”

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