Industry lobbying to change drone export control rules

The main international agreement controlling  the proliferation of drones, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), is coming under increasing pressure from drone manufacturers who see it as out-dated and ‘a drag’ on the development of their industry.

The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is a non-binding voluntary agreement between a number of countries who have agreed to curb the spread of unmanned delivery systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction.   The MTCR was originally established in 1987 by Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, but has since grown to a total of  thirty-four.

The MTCR controls two categories of delivery systems and applicable technology.  Category One systems are capable of delivering a 500 kilogram warhead further than 300 kilometres, while Category II covers systems that carry a lighter warhead or have a range of less than 300km.   Although all decisions are taken on a national basis, and there is no sanction by other countries if the MTCR is broken, there is a “strong presumption of denial” underpinning Category One – that is, an assumption that MTCR signatory states will not export such systems.  Countries have greater discretion about exporting Category Two systems.

Although the primary focus of the agreement was to control  the spread of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (or drones as they are commonly known) were included as they too can deliver weapons of mass destruction.

Now however, with the rapid development in the use of drones , the MTCR’s control over the export of drones is seen as an obstacle by the drone industry.  Wes Bush, CEO of US drone manufacturer  Northrop Grumman, is one  senior military industry figures who has publicly spoken out against the MTCR saying that that controls  “hurt industry” and the agreement “needs an overhaul”. 

One way that drone manufacturers have already begun to get around the controls is to make small changes to their drones to make them come under Category Two rather than Category One.   In March this year the US government cleared an unarmed version of the Predator drone for export after changes were made so it would come under MTCR Category Two rather than Category  One,  and then in May it was revealed that the Israeli manufactured ‘Dominator 2’ had also been cleared for export after changes had been made to its basic design.   Israel is not officially an  MTCR country but states that it agrees to abide by the MTCR controls.

Another suggestion for getting round the agreement made in a recent US forum on the matter is that the industry provide drone “services” to other nations rather than selling them the actual  drones, “a move which would bypass MTCR restrictions because the UAV would remain under [the selling countries] control.”  While this may sound unworkable, it should be remembered that Israel is renting its Hermes drone to the UK for use in Afghanistan on a ‘pay by the hour’ basis in a very similar way to this suggestion.

There is little publicly available information about the internal working of the MTCR as much of what happens takes place behind closed doors.  The most recent Plenary Meeting of MTCR countries took place in April 2011 in Argentina where discussion about the impact of the MTCR on the growth of the drone market clearly took place as this International Institute for Strategic Studies briefing, written before the meeting, makes clear:

“Several MTCR member states, and their defence aerospace industries, have an interest in considering how the regime addresses medium- and high-altitude long-endurance (MALE/HALE) UAVs. With domestic defence budgets coming under pressure, there is renewed impetus in identifying additional export markets for these types of UAVs, including commercial and paramilitary applications. The present MTCR guidelines are a hindrance and complicate their sale.”

While the bland statement issued at the end of the meeting made no mention of these ‘rumblings’ (as the ISS called them), it is clear that pressure is continuing to be applied behind the scenes.

Aviation Week quoted an (unnamed) CEO of one UAV company talking about the issue: “People will say ‘You’re only doing this because you want to sell more UAVs’, and that’s exactly what we want to do.”

We shall be monitoring industry lobbying on this issue.  If anyone has any info to share we shall be delighted to receive it.

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