The U.S. export of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to allies and partner nations has been restricted for decades by irrational policies and outdated definitions and Congress should rectify the situation by redefining these systems as combat aircraft, which would make it easier for the U.S. to sell them to friendly countries, says a new paper by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

The export restrictions, which are voluntary under the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), are limiting opportunities for more interoperability with U.S. allies and partners and leaving the door wide open for China to fill the breach in some instances as global demand for UAVs soars, argues Heather Penney, a senior fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, in Modernizing Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Export Policy for Effective Coalition Forces.

“To enable the export of critical UAVs to U.S. allies and partners, the Congress should craft language in the 2021 NDAA that explicitly defines UAVs as aircraft and not synonymous with or a subset of cruise missiles,” Penney says in one of her “key points” in the policy paper. “This statutory change would supersede the MTCR, effectively removing U.S. UAV export decisions from the MTCR Guidelines.”

The NDAA is the annual National Defense Authorization Act defense policy bill crafted by the members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.

In a webcast hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies to introduce the report, Penney said the MTCR is a “gentleman’s agreement” focused on “delivery technologies” such as ballistic and cruise missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction, adding that it can’t be enforced or breaches punished. The agreement, which has been agreed to by 35 nations, including Russia but not China, was seen at the time as a means of nuclear non-proliferation, she said.

Keith Webster, who runs the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Defense and Aerospace Export Council, said on the webcast the U.S. should just act “unilaterally” on the issue of UAV exports to bypass the MTCR but otherwise remain in the regime. The U.S. has a “proven process for the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world, some of which is nuclear capable…of adjudicating within the interagency and with the Congress a sale or no sale,” he said.

Webster highlighted U.S. sales of its F-35, F/A-18E/F and F-16 fighters as the type of high-end manned combat aircraft the country has sold for years to its allies.

In her paper, Penney highlights the expanding use of UAVs in modern military operations and plans for wider use in aerial refueling, electronic warfare and manned-unmanned teaming, all key capabilities for integrated U.S. and allied missions.

“Allies and partners are essential force multipliers, and effective coalition operations require seamless integration of capabilities,” the paper says. “Operating the same UAVs as the U.S. Air Force means that partners can burden-share with the United States. Partners can provide a forward presence of intelligence collection and deterrence in critical regions, freeing U.S. assets for other global commitments.”

The U.S. has sold a limited number of military UAVs to partners and allies, such as Britain and Italy.

These sales are the “exception, not the rule,” Penney said during the webcast.

The export restrictions have created a “market vacuum” that China has been taking advantage of to sell its military drones to various U.S. partners such as Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Webster says in the paper.

“The decades-long lifecycles of these UAVs mean that the Chinese market ‘entry’ could turn into a strategic advantage for China, especially when integrating indigenous industry,” she said.

Webster said that when U.S. partners acquire and operate Chinese UAVs, U.S. forces conducting joint missions will not dare allow their systems to electronically connect with the Chinese systems because that would reveal sensitive information. He added that this means the U.S. loses out on the “force multiplier” effects associated with joint operations.