There are questions of access and influence behind a US decision to redraw part of the MTCR
By Dougal Robertson
In a statement issued on 24 July this year, the White House announced the decision to move a “carefully selected subset” of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) from the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) Category I to Category II.
The decision is significant for two reasons. The first is it potentially makes high-end UAS – including armed medium altitude long-endurance (MALE) systems – available to a range of non-traditional US security partners. This means we may see more sales in the Indo-Pacific of UAS based on the successful General Atomics Aeronautical Systems International (GA-ASI) Predator B and Reaper airframes.
The second is it shows how the US may be seeking to reduce Chinese influence in strategic areas by linking non-allied countries through technology. The White House statement came as no surprise to those following the UAS export debate in the US. In April 2018 President Trump had signed a memorandum approving a new Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy.
The revised CAT was intended to make it easier for US defence companies to sell high-value technology to allies and partners, and called for a plan to align UAS export policy more closely with US national and economic security interests.
To those not following the UAS export debate, the vagaries of the MTCR could seem a dusty corner of international policy. The MTCR was established in 1987 to limit the spread of ballistic missiles and other unmanned delivery systems that could be used for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defence (CBRND) attacks.
In the closing stages of the Cold War, the MTCR – a voluntary agreement between signatory nations – seemed the most effective way of preventing Soviet weapons and technology directly or inadvertently falling into the hands of rogue or pariah states. Fourteen years later in 2001, the MTCR received a further boost as partner nations sought to prevent missile technology being sold or transferred to terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda or Lebanese Hezbollah.
The MTCR requires each member nation to control the export of technologies that could be used to deliver CBRND payloads, and these technologies are listed in an annex to the MTCR containing Category I and Category II items. The MTCR guidelines state there should be a “strong presumption to deny” Category I transfers. But when the MTCR Material and Technology Annex was drafted in 1987 military UAS development was still in its infancy, UAS with a range of at least 300km and a payload of at least 500kg are defined as Category I, while Category II UAS are defined as those with a range of at least 300km regardless of payload.
In essence, a UAV is considered the same as a cruise or ballistic missile where the mission is outbound only. The vagaries of the MTCR might not seem immediately relevant. But the grouping of larger UAS with cruise and ballistic missiles means high-end systems such as GA-ASI Predator and Northrop Grumman Global Hawk airframes have only been sold to a select range of customers, primarily the Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, Great Britain, the US and New Zealand) group or full NATO members.
Key US bilateral security partners South Korea and Japan have also purchased RQ-4B Global Hawk, while India is still ‘negotiating’ to buy 22 GA-ASI SeaGuardian (maritime MQ-9B) systems. Meanwhile, China and Israel (and to a lesser extent Turkey) appear to be meeting market demand by providing smaller Category II UAS for immediate sale – SIPRI figures indicate China may have already signed contracts for over 200 CH-4 and Wing Loong II airframes, with most of the sales in the Middle East.
It’s unclear if the Chinese and Israeli systems are actually competing with US airframes. A 2017 RAND study noted that larger Category II UAS such as CH-4 and Wing Loong and Hermes 900 should be considered “near Category I”.
But there is a lot more to capability than an airframe and power source. The PRC systems appear to be competing on price alone, but questions have been raised about the reliability of Chinese-made low-cost airframes. Jordan is reportedly disposing of its armed CH-4B UAS, while the Iraqi Army CH-4B airframes have a serviceability rate of 10 per cent (although this may also be due to Iraqi maintenance practices).
Israeli systems come with the benefit of an operational test and evaluation by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). The IDF has for a long time used commercial sales of IDF systems to fund improvements and upgrades to equipment – the Elbit and IAI UAS are no exception. Perhaps most importantly, the Chinese, Israeli, and Turkish UAS (including the ground segment) are not able to connect to US information networks such as Link 16 due to security concerns.
A spokesperson for GA-ASI made the case succinctly to ADBR: “GA-ASI does not compete on price. Our reputation for trusted, proven, highly-capable, interoperable, and secure RPAS that provide assured capability … backed by the US Government, remains a very attractive value package to first-tier RPAS military and security operators.” And this may be where the unilateral US changes to MTCR will have the greatest effect.
GA-ASI added that, “Customer requirements, including those from a growing international customer base… are driving a range of advanced capabilities for the MQ-9A and MQ-9B RPAS. Development of a wide range of advanced networking systems continues, along with a range of new radar, EW, and EO/IR payload options.”
GA-ASI and Northrop Grumman have maintained a performance edge due largely to natural advantages in propulsion technology and airframe design – for example the Honeywell TPE331 engine in Predator B was first introduced in 1961, and has been subject to constant improvement and refinement for its numerous commercial and military applications. Likewise, airframe and payload improvements have been upgraded based on customer requirements and internal research and development – GA-ASI states the MQ-9B SkyGuardian was developed in-house by the company.
But the real capability behind the sticker price of a US-built Category I UAS is access to US information-sharing networks and sensor technology. And with that access comes a level of assurance that the system will function as advertised, and that it will provide a layer of security to protect the information that is being collected.
GA-ASI was reluctant to comment directly about the White House announcement on MTCR, but said the company welcomed the changes. “We look forward to this announcement leading to approvals for sales to a larger portion of the international market.” Many states in the Indo-Pacific are now looking to procure UAS to boost maritime and border security, and to provide domain awareness of grey zone activity in contested areas. The increased availability of high-end US-built UAS may be the method that links these states into the US security framework, without unduly affecting the regional balance of power.
This article featured in the July-August 2020 issue of ADBR