Drones, proliferation and the MTCR: US presents discussion paper  

Over the past last couple of months there has been several reports in the defence and international press that the United States is looking to ‘renegotiate’ the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in order to allow it to increase the export of its unmanned drones. Alongside the US-led initiative to put in place a new international political agreement on the proliferation and use of armed UAVs – which many experts see as possibly weakening current international controls – this new move is worrying for those concerned about international peace and security.

The MTCR is a non-binding agreement originally established in 1987 by the G7 nations which has since grown to a total of thirty-five countries. It is aimed at curbing the spread of missiles and other unmanned systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction.

The MTCR controls two categories of delivery systems and applicable technology. Category One systems are capable of delivering a 500 kilogram payload further than 300 kilometres, while Category Two covers systems that have a range of 300km regardless of payload.  There is a “strong presumption of denial” underpinning Category One – that is, an assumption that MTCR signatory states will not export such systems – while countries have greater discretion about exporting Category Two systems.

We have previously reported that the US drone lobby in particular sees the MTCR as “hurting industry” and that it has worked behind the scenes to try to ensure that restrictions imposed on drone exports by the MTCR are, as it puts it, “relaxed”.  While such efforts have floundered until now, the US drone lobby were quick to see the newly elected President Trump as an ally for change in this area.

The 2017 Plenary Meeting of the MTCR took place in Dublin in October and news of this MTCR initiative was so concerning that we asked to meet with UK officials to seek clarification.  A small delegation from Drone Wars, Saferworld, CAAT and Article 36, duly met with MoD/FCO officials and, while the meeting took place under Chatham House rules, it was agreed that we could say the following publicly:

  • It was confirmed that a discussion paper was presented by the US to the technical experts meeting of the MTCR to initiate thoughts around future possible discussions to change the MTCR categorisation of certain UAVs.  In essence these proposed changes would add speed as a criteria along with distance and payload.  Below a certain speed (yet to be agreed) controlled items would move from Category I to Category II.  It was emphasised that items in Category II are still controlled.
  • At this stage this was a non-paper about a possible proposal, yet to be formally submitted, which would lead to in depth technical discussion that are likely to be lengthy, perhaps even take several years.
  • It was emphasised that there is no link between these proposed changes to the MTCR and the process for a new political agreement based on the Joint Declaration on Proliferation and Use of Armed UAVs.

While these clarifications are helpful, we continue to be concerned at moves to lessen the controls on the proliferation of these systems.

The US drone industry argues that it is unfair that China is exporting such systems whilst adherence to the MTCR forbids them from doing so.  They also suggest that this is bringing the MTCR into disrepute. However, rather than focusing on changing the MTCR to allow more drone exports, diplomatic effort should be expended in ensuring that China lives up to its pledges to adhere to the MTCR.

We will continue to monitor and oppose efforts by the drone lobby and others to weaken controls on the proliferation of drones.

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