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US eases export rules on drone sales to allies


The US on Friday relaxed norms to allow American defence companies to sell more drones to allies by changing the decades-old Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an agreement involving 35 countries to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The White House said in a statement that while the 1987 missile control pact is critical in slowing proliferation and promoting peace and security, it is in dire need of modernisation as it applies to unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

“This action, which is consistent with the MTCR guidelines will increase the US’s national security by improving capabilities of its partners and increase economic security by opening the expanding drones market to the US industry,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement.

McEnany said the MTCR standards are more than three decades old in a sector which has rapidly evolving technology and these outdated standards give an unfair advantage to countries outside MTCR and hurt the United States industry.

They also hinder the deterrence capability abroad by handicapping the US’ partners and allies with subpar technology, she said. More than two years of discussion with MTCR partners were unable to produce consensus on this overdue reform, she added.

“Therefore, 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 kilometers per hour, as Category II,” McEnany said.

“As such, the United States has determined that it will overcome the MTCR’s strong presumption of denial for this UAS subset,” she added.

McEnany said the action, which is consistent with MTCR guidelines and the objectives of the UAS export policy of April 2018, will increase the US’ national security by improving the capabilities of its partners and increase the country’s economic security by opening the expanding UAS market to United States industry.

“It also sets a strong example for other MTCR partners to adopt the same standard,” she added.

Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of state for political military affairs, said the policy change modernises the US’ approach to implementing MTCR commitments and makes it more reflective of the technological realities.

“It helps our allies, it helps our partners — it helps them all meet their urgent national security and commercial requirements, and it also advances the US’ national security and economic interests,” Cooper said during a conference call.

Cooper, however, said higher-speed systems such as cruise missiles, hypersonic aerial vehicles, and advanced unmanned combat aerial vehicles are not affected by this revision.

The United States remains a committed member of the MTCR and holds it as an important non-proliferation tool to curb the spread of high-end missile technologies to countries such as North Korea and Iran.

He said preventing the use and spread of the weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery remains a Trump administration priority.

As of now only the United Kingdom, France and Australia are allowed to buy larger, armed drones from US manufacturers.

Senator Jim Risch, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said for too long, the restraint of the international community with regard to exports of large unmanned aircraft has created an opportunity for the Chinese military to advance its defence technology and industrial base, and build new defence relationships around the world, including with traditional US partners.

“I commend the administration for its robust, years-long diplomatic effort to modernise the MTCR to account for China’s actions. It has become clear, however, that one MTCR member state will inevitably block any consensus within the regime on necessary changes. Therefore, the United States has no choice but to make the policy changes that the administration has outlined today,” he said.

However, Senator Bob Menendez, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Trump administration has once again weakened international export controls by this action.

“It is important to appreciate that the Missile Technology Control Regime originally adopted stringent controls on exports of advanced drones at the urging of the United States. To disregard this policy now is likely to undermine the credibility and influence of the MTCR generally, which also coordinates international controls on the sale and spread of dangerous ballistic missiles and technology around the world,” he said.

Congressman Eliot Engel, the chairperson of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Trump is unilaterally abrogating a long-standing arms control agreement because it is inconvenient for his ‘anything goes’ policy to sell dangerous weapons seemingly anywhere to anyone.

“In this case, it is the MTCR, set up by President Reagan, to restrict exports of unmanned aerial vehicles that can carry nuclear weapons. Trump wants to be free to sell UAVs that can carry heavy warheads, bombs, and other explosive devices more than 300 km,” Engel said.