WASHINGTON â€” The United States is preparing a new push to change how unmanned systems are categorized under an international arms treaty, as part of a broad effort to make it easier to sell military drones abroad.
Andrea Thompson, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, told reporters Sept. 7 that American negotiators are aiming to introduce modifications to the Missile Technology Control Regime, an agreement among 35 nations that governs the export of missiles and drones, when the group has a November meeting.
â€śWeâ€™ve had those discussions, weâ€™ve done the policy review and weâ€™re working through the MTCR on what steps need to be taken,â€ť said Thompson, who added she was â€śconfidentâ€ť the U.S. was engaging in a transparent way with other signatories of the agreement.
â€śWeâ€™ve had those discussions and will continue to have those discussions up and through this engagement later this year,â€ť she said.
The MTCR has long been a thorn in the side of drone advocates. The treaty covers large unmanned systems, such as the MQ-9 Reaper, because of a technicality that identified such systems as once-use missiles and not aircraft which will be reused multiple times; advocates argue that designation makes no sense for the way large UAVs are used.
Systems which carry 500-kilogram payloads for more than 300 kilometers are considered â€ścategroy-1â€ť systems, which comes with a â€śpresumption of denialâ€ť which means countries tied into the MTCR need to have a very compelling case to sell them.
Last October, American officials floated a whitepaper to allies proposing that any air vehicle that flies under 650 kilometers per hour would drop to â€ścategory-2â€ť and thus be subject to approval on a case-by-case basis, as opposed to having to follow the more strict â€ścategory-1â€ť policies.
Most medium-altitude, long-endurance systems like General Atomicsâ€™ MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper fly at slow speeds, with the Reaper clocking in with a cruise speed of 230 mph or 370 kph, according to an Air Force fact sheet. Northrop Grummanâ€™s RQ-4 Global Hawk, a high-altitude ISR drone, flies only at a cruise speed of about 357 mph or 575 kph.
American industry and others have raised the concern that China or other competitors will fill the void for countries the U.S. wonâ€™t sell to, something Thompson echoed during her interview at the Defense Writerâ€™s Group.
â€śWeâ€™ve seen it with our competitors. If weâ€™re not in the region, and if weâ€™re not there with our U.S. equipment, there are other countries that will fill that gap,â€ť Thompson said.
However, she declined to say if last yearâ€™s whitepaper is the specific proposal American negotiators would be bringing in November, saying only â€śweâ€™re already in discussion with partners nowâ€¦ weâ€™re in discussion with folks. All positive thus far.â€ť
But Rachel Stohl, managing director with the Stimson Center, warns that the U.S. needs to be cautious when pursuing potential changes to the MTCR, as it opens the risk of encouraging â€śnon-MTCR members to sell more drones to less desirable actors.â€ť
â€śIt might be necessary, but we would be foolish not to recognize potential risk of changing an agreement. There are always unintended consequences,â€ť she said.