Nuclear Weapons

UAVs: An (unexploited) Seller’s Market

08.21.14 | 10 min read | Text by Michael Bodner

Today, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or “drones”), are an ever-present entity in both political discourse and the skies above countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Unmanned aerial vehicles can be used for a wide variety of missions. While intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and target acquisition are missions that frequently fall under the purview of basic UAVs, more advanced drones can be used for specialized tasks such as laser targeting, cargo transportation, and precision strike missions. Over 50 countries possess the ability to produce their own UAVs, and those that cannot do so are able to receive UAVs from exporters around the world. The most valued UAVs in the export market are those capable of long range flight or armed operations, as these platforms are significantly more difficult for many countries to independently produce. The United States holds the technological edge in UAV production, but Israel is the world’s leading exporter of UAV systems. Systems such as Israel Aerospace Industries’ Heron UAV have been sent to countries such as Indonesia, Germany, and India. The only indigenously produced British drone, the Watchkeeper WK450, is a variant of the Israeli Hermes 450, a medium-size UAV manufactured by Haifa’s Elbit Systems Ltd. Between 2006 and 2013 UAV exports from Israel totaled $4.6 billion.

It may seem strange that the United States is not the world’s largest exporter of UAVs. After all, the U.S. holds the unequivocal edge in UAV technological development. No other UAV can hold an offensive payload within 1,500 pounds of the nearly two tons carried by the American MQ-9 Reaper, an aircraft whose upgrade the General Atomics Avenger, has already been tested in Afghanistan. UAVs such as the Avenger or the Lockheed Martin’s RQ-170 Sentinel (an advanced reconnaissance drone), are designed with stealth in mind, and no other country has been confirmed to have developed and put into service an independently-designed UAV with stealth capabilities.

It is understandable that the United States does not wish to export the Avenger or the Sentinel, two of its most cutting-edge systems, to foreign countries. The secrets of such technological advancements may have no dollar equivalent. Yet the United States has developed many UAVs such as the MQ-1 Predator or the RQ-7B Shadow that while advanced, do not represent the absolute cutting edge in UAV technology. Historically, the United States has had few quandaries with exporting other advanced weapons systems to countries around the world: the M1 Abrams tank has been exported by the hundreds to countries around the world, as has the F-16 Fighting Falcon jet or the Apache AH-64 attack helicopter. All of the vehicles were exported in what was at the time the most advanced version of the product. What is it about UAVs that leads to the United States’ hesitancy to fully invest in the export field?

The answer is hard to define, and impossible to pin on only one factor. A major factor slowing down UAV exports is the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), a set of federal regulations that require Department of State authorization in order to allow domestic firms to export information or material with military applications, specifically those on the United States Munitions List. Yet this is an obstacle faced by many U.S. manufacturers, whether they wish to export tanks, jet fighters, helicopters, or nuclear weapons. Although the nuclear weapon exportation field is admittedly a small one, the ITAR has still allowed for robust exportation of the aforementioned Abrams, Fighting Falcons, and Apaches. Instead, the United States is imposing constraints on itself and other suppliers through a multilateral mechanism.

The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) is a partnership between the United States and 33 other countries that aims to prevent the reckless proliferation of WMD delivery systems by attempting to limit the transfer of “missile equipment, material, and related technologies” used to deliver weapons of mass destruction. This is achieved by member states establishing license authorization requirements for trade of MTCR-designated goods. The MTCR attempts to limit the export of a broad range of goods beyond completed missile systems: these include propellant systems and turboprop engines usable in ICBMs to both short and long-range UAV systems.

While manned aircraft are specifically mentioned as not covered under the MTCR, the text of the agreement does specifically mention UAVs as an entity to be regulated by the Regime. As far back as 1987, (the year the MTCR was established), UAVs were seen by the international community as a potent delivery method for weapons of mass destruction, despite the fact that intercontinental ballistic missiles dominated the news of the day. The end of the Cold War brought with it a reduced threat of global nuclear war. Yet the rise of global terrorism means the MTCR will still be relevant in the years to come as a safeguard against weapons proliferation among non-state actors. Representatives from member countries convene at an annual plenary meeting in an attempt to ensure MTCR regulations remain effective and feasible.

The MTCR separates WMD delivery systems into “Category I” and “Category II” items. Category I items are systems capable of carrying a payload of at least 500 kg to a distance of at least 300 km (roughly 1,100 lbs. to a distance of 186 miles). Category II items include systems with a range of 300 km (but a sub-500 kg payload) and other dual-use, “missile-related,” components. These items are subject to less scrutiny under MTCR guidelines, although goods judged by an exporting country to be intended for WMD delivery are subject to a “strong presumption of (license) denial.”

American UAVs that would be classified as category I delivery systems include the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper. In the case of the Predator and the Reaper, the United States would be encouraged under MTCR guidelines to require General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (the producer of the above two systems), to attain a special export license (which is no easy task) in order to export its UAVs.

It is easy for analysts to point to the MTCR as the reason the United States has not entered the UAV export market with the force it is capable of. However, the MTCR is not a treaty, and is not binding or enforceable. MTCR guidelines even allow for the exportation of category I items at the member states’ discretion, although it frowns upon the practice. The only thing “prohibited absolutely” under MTCR rules is the exportation of “production facilities” for category I goods, defined as the equipment and software designed to be integrated into installations for product development or production.

Under the MTCR, the United States would be able to export its UAVs without violating its Regime obligations, provided it does not export the aforementioned production facilities for said drones. The U.S. could even increase UAV exports without worrying that such exports make it significantly easier for another country or non-state actor to deploy a WMD. While they could theoretically be used to deliver a WMD, UAVs (even those that fall into the MTCR’s category I), are not the optimal delivery method for the utilization of such weapons. They are much slower than jets or missiles, and while their payloads can be impressive, they pale in comparison to those of dedicated bombers, which have proven stealth abilities. A UAV’s strength lies in the unique ability to conduct surgical strikes and reconnaissance while guaranteeing the safety of its operator.

Why does the United States hesitate to export UAVs on the scale they export other types of military equipment? It is possible that the answer in large part reflects the existence of a belief in the United States that UAVs represent the latest development in military technology, a feat of military engineering that has the potential to give the United States an ever-increasing ability to discretely gather intelligence and attack high-value targets.  Given its advanced nature, it would be unwise and perhaps even dangerous to share such technology with other nations. Yet, if the United States continues to be hesitant in selling UAVs to foreign countries, what will these other countries choose to do? They will not simply decide to continue operating a military with limited or outdated UAVs; they will get their UAVs from other countries, which would be an economic, political, and military setback for the United States.

During the Cold War, it was routine for a country’s military to be built around Soviet or American weapons and vehicles. Through the selling of arms and equipment, the 20th century superpowers managed to influence the policy of allied countries looking for foreign and domestic security in an unstable world. Over two decades after the end of the Cold War, the same situation holds true. The UAV may be able to perform a similar role to that of the Kalashnikov, a tool that could be used to empower nations while keeping them drawn to an even more powerful patron.

What if potential customers choose to take their business to countries whose world views are less in line with those of the United States, such as China or Russia? These two countries have UAV and UCAV development programs of their own and both are eager to expand their influence into areas such as Africa and Central Asia. If the United States finds itself unwilling to keep up with the trends of the defense export market, it could find itself with shrinking influence in geopolitical regions key to its interests. Of course, there are other factors besides arms sales that draw countries together. Common cultural bonds, economic aid, and similar geopolitical interests can naturally bring countries together. Yet it would be foolish to ignore military dependency as a valuable tool in the struggle to win international allies. The ability of military sales to build relationships is hard to deny; India is the largest importer of Israeli military goods, and this is undoubtedly a foundation of the international partnership between the two nations.

Of course, many countries could choose to simply develop their own UAVs. A platform that can ably perform the missions of ISR and target acquisition is not extraordinarily hard to develop; the British military was operating the remote-controlled, reusable Queen Bee UAV as early as the 1930’s. Despite its early development date the Queen Bee would prove reliable enough to serve with the Royal Navy until 1947, long after further developments in UAVs had been made. It is significantly more difficult to design a UAV that can accurately deliver a heavy offensive payload while maintaining the ability to travel long distances with reasonable speed. Due to this challenge, many countries will choose to import rather than develop UAVs.

While there would certainly be advantages to the United States increasing its activity in the UAV export market, there could be significant drawbacks as well. Currently, UAVs operate with a quasi-legality and de facto acceptance around the world. The United States executes strike missions in countries like Pakistan that would be politically infeasible with manned aircraft. After an almost six-month hiatus, drone strikes are once again occurring in Pakistan, a country that publicly claims such strikes violate its sovereignty. Should multiple countries gain access to Predator or Reaper drones, a similar situation of frequent strikes may well be seen on a global scale. This could prove a serious threat to global international relations and the security of internationally recognized borders.

The United States faces a decision of great importance. Should it export its advanced UAVs in greater numbers, earning tremendous amounts of funds while expanding its sphere of influence? Or, should it operate on the side of caution, weighing the benefits of influence versus the hazards of proliferating a weapon whose rules of use have not been properly defined?

The unfortunate truth is that, in the end, the technology behind advanced UAVs and UCAVs will be spread around the world. With the exception of the MTCR, there are no internationally-recognized bodies who name the limiting of military UAV exportation as a primary objective. If it is not spread by the United States, it will be spread by another country. The United States should take a lead in this market, securing its influence and building alliances around the world. Through this method, the United States could reap the valuable long-term rewards that come with UAV exportation.

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Michael Bodner is a Legislative Fellow with the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center in Washington, D.C. Mr. Bodner is a recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where he majored in International Studies with a concentration in Global Security and Counterterrorism. He has also attended Freie Universität in Berlin, where he studied the European role in international security.  His past work with FAS includes research and writing about chemical weapons use in the Syrian Civil War, international biosecurity, and the enforcement of sanctions against Iran. Special research interests include the Arab-Israeli conflict and the international proliferation of surface-to-air missiles.