A major Washington think tank has recommended a review and revision of U.S. export rules on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to avoid the controversies that cost the domestic satellite industry billions, according to a report released Thursday.
After convening with industry and policymakers, the Stimson Center made export review and reform one of eight key recommendations related to U.S. drone use. The report calls for further distinction between military and civilian drones, evaluation of licensing policies and consideration of international impacts. The report comes as the White House is preparing a review of UAV controls that should become publicly available soon.
Peter Lichtenbaum, partner at Covington & Burling LLP and former under secretary of commerce, said a “deep dive” into understanding industry conditions and technology paths would better inform licensing policies and prevent the pitfalls that stymied the satellite market.
“We think that same type of deep dive would be appropriate here, basically to enable our licensing policies to avoid unintended consequences for national security and business as we saw, for instance, in the commercial satellite industry, where rigid export restrictions in the late 90s promoted a growth of overseas capabilities,” he said at a launch for the report Thursday.
Commenting on the report, Remy Nathan, vice president for international affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association, said the “one-size-fits-all” approach that restricted the export for all commercial satellites and components would be devastating to the UAV market.
“Substitute UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] for satellite…you pretty have an almost one-to-one correspondence in the potential trajectory of consequences that we’re trying to avoid,” he said in an interview.
Currently, UAVs are subject to the same guidance for missile payload and range under the international Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Like the satellite controversies, the MTCR acts like a “blunt instrument” to categorize UAVs.
“That kind of condition might have made sense at one time for missiles but now they’re applying it to UAVs simply based on range and payload,” he said.
Furthermore, there is a presumption of denial for UAVs under MTCR Category I, meaning that capabilities exceeding a 300km/500kg range/payload threshold should not be exported.
“There’s no clarity to that process,” he said. “That presumption of denial has amounted to denial far more often than it perhaps should or could.”
Lichtenbaum said Stimson’s drone task force vigorously debated the classification issue but settled on recommending that it be reviewed further.
“Some within industry feel that the presumption of denial has outlived its day, others on the task force felt that it continues to serve an important purpose because it provides a very clear yardstick that can be applied to the actions of other countries, even if we…might feel that we could adapt a more nuanced view,” he said.
Any changes to the MTCR must be internationally recognized. Lichtenbaum emphasized the need to work with the 33 MTCR partner countries and others that have entered the UAV market.
“Our controls will be cost effective if they’re coordinated with and supported by many other significant producers,” he said.
In addition to licensing issues, the Departments of State and Commerce, which jointly control UAV exports, should better define technical standards for classifying drones, Lichtenbaum said.
“Right now the State Department controls military UAVs, but there’s no definition of that term,” he said. “It has a chilling effect on business; it creates a delay.”
The report also recommends that the administration permit services related to drones to be exported. This would bring benefits to industry without fears of proliferation.
Skeptics of controlling UAV exports counter that the technology is available abroad and the United States already faces growing international competition. In response to an audience question, Lichtenbaum said that the number of countries with UAV technology was not very large and some countries do not share U.S. values with regard to unmanned systems.
“I don’t think the right answer is to say, ‘well because there may be some situations that go forward that we would prefer not go forward that we shouldn’t try to achieve some discipline where we can,’” he said.