Trump Administration Changes UAS Export Policy

On Friday, July 24, the Trump Administration announced an update to the 2018 Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Export Policy, which makes it easier for U.S. manufacturers to export certain types of UAS to foreign allies and partners. 

UAS Export Policy? Tell Me More...

Since 1987, the United States and 35 other countries have voluntarily adhered to the international nuclear nonproliferation export guidelines of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR.)

The MTCR is designed to limit the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapon delivery systems and related technology, and suggests different levels of export restriction for different two categories of potential exports.

Cateogry I” items, which include ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable cruise missiles, are considered to be the most risky, and MTCR recommends that partner governments should have “a strong presumption to deny” technology transfers through the export of Category I items, regardless of their purpose, though it allows for exports of “rare occasions.” 

Meanwhile, the MTCR suggests a more liberal approach to authorizing exports of Category II items, which include less sensitive and dual-use, missile-related components. 

Currently, MTCR classifies UAS that are capable of delivering a payload of at least 500 kg to a range of at least 300 km, along with their major complete subsystems and related software and technology, to be Category I, while UAS that don’t meet that criteria are classified as Category II

So, What's the Trump Administration Changing?

The new UAS export policy reclassifies a subset of UAS with a maximum airspeed of fewer than 800 kilometers per hour to the less strict “Category II.”

This means that it will be slightly easier to export these types of UAS. 

Why Did They Do That?

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany stated that the MTCR’s standards, which are over 30 years old, are outdated and give an unfair industry advantage to countries outside of the MTCR (namely China) while hurting the U.S. drone industry and “handicapping U.S. partners and allies with subpar technology.”

This is in line with a 2017 RAND Corporation study, which argued that restrictions on shipping armed and unarmed drones to foreign customers, such as Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, have left U.S. manufacturers at a disadvantage, effectively ceding much of the market to China.  

The Trump administration has been trying to convince MTCR partners to multilaterally adjust the classification since April 2018 but, due to lack of consensus, Trump has decided to change the U.S.’s adherence. 

Will the U.S. Regain Its Share of the International Drone Market?

Some have argued that it’s too late to turn the tide, as the Chinese share of the military drone market has grown a lot, particularly in Africa.

But, there have been reports of Chinese-made drones, such as the CH-4B “Rainbow” Predator-knockoff, performing so badly that the Air Forces that bought them ended up selling off parts of their fleets.

On top of that, European countries remain wary of using Chinese drones for classified military purposes. This means that there is likely still time for U.S. manufacturers to regain lost ground.

What Else Could Happen?

First, the good news: Lifting these export restrictions could improve R&D for drone manufacturing in the U.S.

The previously mentioned RAND study suggests that excessive export controls have stymied UAS research, both in companies and other research organizations, such as universities. The benefits of this R&D could spill over into commercial drone manufacturing, especially for drones designed to perform long-duration operations in harsh environmental conditions.


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The bad news is that this could exacerbate tension between the U.S. and China. In particular, less than two weeks after the new policy was announced, the U.S. began negotiating the sale of at least four of its large “SeaGuardian” aerial drones to Taiwan for the first time.

The deal still has to be approved by Congress, but if it goes through, it would feed into what the New York Times, calls a campaign by national security officials “to set the United States on a long-term course of competition and confrontation with China.” 

This Sounds Like a Big Game-Changer

Sort of.

Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Andrews has stated that the DoD is “fully supportive of implementing all aspects of this Administration’s updated UAS policy,” but stressed that “particularly sensitive components and subsystems [still] must be sold via Foreign Military Sales (FMS), as is the case for sensitive components and subsystems for manned aircraft sales.”

It’s important to bear in mind that other regulatory frameworks, such as the Arms Export Control Act, impose restrictions on the exports of UAS, so the outcomes of this policy change, while nontrivial, may not be as sweeping as they seem. For more information, check out the updated U.S. Policy on the Export of Unmanned Aerial Systems.

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn is an experienced management professional who is currently pursuing her master’s in Data, Economics, and Development Policy at MIT while serving as principal consultant at Consult92.

Miriam developed a love for UAS technology when she served as operations manager at Consortiq. Today, having completed over 30 successful projects in 10 countries, she loves solving a wide variety of logistical, technical, and cultural challenges for her clients so that they can focus on what care about most.

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