Remotely piloted aircraft such as the MQ-9 Reaper are considered “missiles” under the Missile Technology Control Regime guidelines, undermining efforts to share this technology with allies. Tech. Sgt. Emerson Nuñez
Photo Caption & Credits

Building Alliances and Competing with China

April 29, 2022

It’s time to fix the perception of RPA exportation.

The near-monopoly on remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) that the United States once enjoyed is rapidly eroding as other countries build and export their own unmanned aircraft. Their persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and precision strike capabilities, as well as lower cost, are huge force multipliers, and countries around the world are recognizing the asymmetric advantages RPAs provide. As of 2019, over 95 countries operated RPAs, and more than three dozen militaries operated large, armed unmanned aircraft.

Despite this global growth in demand, the United States has continued to adhere to overly restrictive policies for U.S. RPA exports. These mistaken policies work against U.S. national security objectives of building the capabilities and capacity of its allies and friends. On the one hand, the U.S. Government has approved export of the state-of-the-art MQ-9 Reaper RPA to the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands, but on the other denied them to key partners like Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, and others. These and other countries have subsequently turned to America’s greatest competitor—China—to purchase RPAs.

U.S. RPA export policy is largely driven by concerns over how RPAs might be used. Some fear their use could undermine regional stability, encouraging regional disputes to turn hot. Others suppose RPA exports could kick off regional arms races, while still others see RPAs as delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction. Together, these misplaced fears prevent implementing a reasonable RPA export policy can facilitate U.S. national security interests.

RPAs are included in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a non-compulsory international agreement that was established to prevent the sharing of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) delivery technologies. The MTCR effectively treats RPAs like cruise or ballistic missiles rather than the tactical aircraft they really are. Because of this, unmanned aerial systems capable of delivering 500 kg or greater payloads over ranges of 300 km or more are subject to a “strong presumption of denial,” empowering some arms control advocates to oppose RPA sales in support of nuclear nonproliferation.

Not only have these outdated policies greatly constrained RPA exports to America’s allies and friends—to the benefit of China and other strategic competitors—they have undermined efforts to build regional coalitions, diminished U.S. diplomatic and operational influence, and weakened the U.S. defense industrial base. These restrictions pave the way for China to expand its influence and gather intelligence—and China’s RPA sales do not come with the same end-use restrictions that accompany U.S. military equipment exports. Since 2014, China has exported more RPAs than any other country, and Russia is not far behind in exploiting growing demand for these capabilities.

Heather Penney is a senior resident fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Download the entire report at:

The era of RPA proliferation is already here. Like other military technologies, U.S. decisions to export RPAs should be based on a realistic view of how they can and should contribute to U.S. national security. The fact is, exporting armed RPAs can provide significant value by building relationships and the capacity for U.S. friends, allies, and partners to defend themselves against aggression and contribute to future coalitions to defeat threats to regional stability. Assistance to Ukraine is a recent case in point. U.S. State Department’s export restrictions on RPAs are essentially preventing the provision of RPAs as vital tools to counter the aggression of the Putin regime, which has been condemned by the rest of the world.

The administration should update its RPA export policies and aggressively pursue opportunities to share these capabilities with allies and partners critical to integrated deterrence.

Understanding RPA Operations

Misperceptions about RPAs, how they operate, and the effects they can create in the battlespace have misinformed U.S. export policies. Because these aircraft are uninhabited, many people believe that humans are not fully in control or even involved in RPA kinetic strike operations. Questions often raised during debates over U.S. RPA exports include: Will their use be less discriminatory than manned aircraft operations? Could their use by U.S. allies and partners lead to increased collateral damage and harm to civilians? Will the export of RPAs contribute to the violation of human rights and the laws of war?

In reality, armed RPAs are the most controlled aircraft in the U.S. military. Humans “in the loop” control RPA operations for the purpose of achieving valid and proportional military objectives in the battlespace while avoiding unnecessary collateral damage and loss of life.

The Human Team Behind RPA Operations

More people are involved in the real-time mission employment of RPAs than for manned strike aircraft. In addition to the local launch support element responsible for takeoff and landing operations, RPA remote crews include a pilot, sensor operator, and a dedicated intelligence team. In a typical RPA mission, the pilot is still responsible for navigating and flying the RPA, just like a pilot would in a manned aircraft. The only difference is all this is done remotely through satellite data links. A sensor operator sitting next to the pilot controls an RPA’s sensors and works closely with the pilot to maneuver the aircraft. Sensor options on RPAs include infrared, color, monochrome daylight TV camera, shortwave infrared camera, synthetic aperture radar, electronic signals collection, electronic warfare, and other types of ISR equipment.

The RPA’s dedicated intelligence analysis team is free to rewind, review, or even pause the aircraft’s feed to get clarity on images and detect changes or movements on the ground that may not be immediately apparent to the pilot and sensor operator controlling the aircraft. The intelligence analyst team directs the sensor operator’s management based on mission objectives. “Targeteers,” who are professionals skilled in identifying targets, attack planning, collateral damage assessments, and rules of engagement are also part of the intelligence team. Targeteers and other team members identify valid targets, determine if a strike against it is needed, what kind of weapons are appropriate, and then forward a recommendation to an air operations center (AOC).

Remotely piloted aircraft enable greater human oversight in real time than manned aircraft. Airmen at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., go through preflight safety checks before initiating an automated takeoff for an MQ-9 Reaper. Staff Sgt. Omari Bernard

The air operations center integrates RPA operations with other joint combat operations, including additional intelligence analysts and lawyers to help commanders assess potential actions. Veteran Air Force RPA pilot Col. Johnny Duray, who has conducted armed RPA operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and other parts of the world, observed that “RPA operations are the most controlled aircraft operations conducted by the U.S. There is more oversight than any other platform.” When an RPA’s intelligence team determines a target meets a commander’s rules of engagement, they nominate the strike to the team at the AOC, which weighs the context, risk of collateral damage, and legality before approving or denying the request. For many armed RPA operations, target engagement decisions reside with commanders in an AOC. For some scenarios, final approval authority may be delegated down to the unit level, or it can be elevated to the Secretary of Defense or even the President of the United States.

The teams of military and civilian professionals located in theater and at remote operating locations provide an unprecedented degree of control and oversight at every step of an RPA mission. RPAs are not “killer bots” that populate science fiction, and they are not launch-and-leave cruise missiles. Instead, they are like any other combat aircraft that depends on human beings to direct and control their operations. Yet RPA export policies assume otherwise and are therefore outdated and uninformed as to the true nature of modern RPA operations.

Comparative Advantages

The ability of RPAs to provide persistent full motion video of a specific battlespace—essentially, a birds-eye view of the operational area—and strike during fleeting moments of opportunity is a distinct combat advantage to supported ground troops. Fighters often arrive on station just in time for a quick overview of the tactical situation before conducting strikes—often rushing to execute their missions due to limited fuel and time-on-station. Furthermore, fighters move so fast that their pilots have to constantly maneuver to remain over target areas and split their attention between interacting with ground crews, managing their sensors, and conducting real-time attack planning and execution while flying in hostile airspace. By contrast, slower RPAs can provide a better, higher quality picture of the battlespace to ground troops, and their long loiter allowed RPA teams to spend more time honing their attacks to minimize collateral damage. Using RPAs for close air support missions in permissive environments can often lead to more discriminate use of force.

The slower speeds of RPAs and better targeting pod depression angles compared to fast-moving fighters present a more stable video image of potential ground targets to analysts, targeteers, and operators. In contrast, the view of fighter targeting pods have shallower depression angles and can be masked by buildings in urban areas or by terrain features, obscuring potential targets. This does not mean that RPAs and manned fighters cannot be exceptionally effective when operating as teammates. A case in point is the successful attack on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi had successfully evaded U.S. and coalition efforts to find him for years. On June 7, 2006, a Predator observed Rahman and positively identified the target and provided target cues to two F-16 fighters. Minutes later, the F-16s dropped two 500-pound laser guided bombs that killed al-Zarqawi and several of his associates. Only an RPA had the ability to provide such persistent and precise tracking and, in this case, F-16s were the best choice to prosecute the target.

RPAs operate at slower speeds than fighter aircraft and offer commanders more stable video of potential ground targets. The MQ-9 Reapers operating from bases in Southwest Asia provide the persistence needed to positively identify targets despite factors that would obscure targets from being seen by higher-flying or faster-moving aircraft. Staff Sgt. Jeremy Mosier

Whether conducting the strikes themselves or cuing other assets, over the past 20 years RPAs have transformed the American public’s expectations of warfare. The ability of RPAs to persistently loiter over key targets and follow them has enabled the U.S. military to conduct warfare in a manner that is robustly evaluated, exceedingly precise, and results in minimum collateral damage or harm to civilians. For the types of targets that RPAs track and the permissive environment they operate in, this has indeed become the standard for operations. The ability of RPAs to limit harm to both U.S. military and innocent civilians has contributed to a belief that conflict can and should be error-free. When it is not, it is important to understand the contributing factors and why things went awry—and experience has shown mistakes are very rarely the fault of the RPA itself.

High-Risk Scenarios

Some RPA export critics continue to cite the potential for their operations to harm civilians, pointing to examples like the MQ-9 strike during the 2021 evacuation of Kabul that killed 10 innocent civilians. The fault here lies not with the RPA as a weapons system but in the many factors that led authorities to approve the attack. The same outcome could have occurred had the mission been flown by a manned aircraft.

Ten people were killed. Initial reports were that another attack on U.S. forces and Afghan evacuees had been preempted. Instead, the attack turned out to have killed Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group, and nine others, including seven children.

An MQ-9 intelligence officer familiar with the incident acknowledged the RPA team knew the strike had a higher level of risk than most operations. He also stated that the vehicle type, electronic intelligence, and even the behavior of Zemari the day of the strike fit the known behavior patterns of suicide car bombers and ISIS-K operatives. Plus, the security situation in Kabul was continuing to devolve, and the U.S. Intelligence Community had just received a warning another terrorist attack was imminent. Based on these conditions, President Joseph R. Biden directed DOD to “take every possible measure to prioritize force protection.”

Critics often cite examples like this one to press their case against such weapons. However, studies have quantitatively demonstrated the opposite is true. RPAs capable of assessing potential targets over long periods of time and providing teams of intelligence experts and strike authorities with more real-time information than ever before have, in fact, improved the targeting, decisions, timing, and precision of strikes, decreasing the risk of harm to noncombatants.

Foreign Military Sales

China leveraged restrictions on U.S. RPA sales to gain market share and, by extension, access to the military activities of numerous international partners who would rather purchase their weapons from the U.S. Deng Hua/Xinhua/via China Ministry of Defense
  • Building Partner Capability: Every U.S. National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy published over the past 30 years has emphasized how essential allies and partners are to our nation’s security. Building their defensive capabilities and capacity through military personnel exchange programs, training activities, exercises, and equipment exports are widely recognized as critical means to create new and strengthen existing relationships. Sharing military equipment also sends a strong signal of U.S. commitment and intent to defend its allies and friends. But overly restrictive military export policies—including policies for RPA exports—can deny allies and friends the means to detect and respond to threats to their sovereign territory and airspace. Forcing them to seek RPAs from China, Russia, and others can erode the effectiveness of America’s integrated deterrence strategy.
  • Coalition members that do not share the same or similar types of weapon systems can struggle with the interoperability challenges that creates operational friction. Furthermore, it is precisely this kind of interoperability that is crucial to the seamless integration of military forces across an international coalition.
  • The Missile Technology Control Regime: Exporting RPAs should be an important means for the United States to strengthen alliances and partnerships. Instead, the Department of State continues to include all RPAs in the MTCR’s guidelines, thereby working against these priorities.

In the early 1990s, MTCR members added “drones” to the regime due to their superficial similarity to cruise missiles. They have since applied the regime to remotely piloted aircraft. The entire premise of this classification is that these technologies are exceedingly difficult and expensive to develop. There was a logic back then to this approach; even if a state were able to develop a nuclear or WMD weapon, it would not be pragmatically useful without the associated delivery mechanism. However, this means the efficacy of the MTCR in limiting the proliferation of delivery vehicles hinges on whether MTCR adherents hold a near-monopoly on these systems.

For RPAs, this “near-monopoly” is an artifact of the past. The United States is no longer the sole or even dominant manufacturer of large RPAs. Michael Horowitz, RPA expert and University of Pennsylvania professor, explained that “treating uninhabited aircraft as missiles for export policy purposes doesn’t work. This has allowed China to capture a significant chunk of the unmanned aircraft export market, including with U.S. allies and partners.” In other words, the United States’ adherence to the MTCR has ceded to China the opportunity to export RPAs to U.S. allies and partners. Without opportunities to export RPAs, U.S. defense companies do not have access to revenue that can be reinvested in next-generation capabilities needed to maintain the U.S. military’s competitive edge. China’s defense industry is taking advantage of this influx of revenue to continue to advance their capabilities.

  • Other nations are not idly standing by: the Czech Republic, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates are all beginning to develop, produce, and export advanced RPAs. Continuing to cover RPAs under the MTCR guidelines threatens to distort the global RPA market in favor of U.S. competitors, encourage the expansion of RPA production capabilities while constraining U.S. innovation, and even weaken the efficacy of the MTCR regime itself.

A more Competitive International Market

The military RPA market is far more competitive and dynamic than many in the U.S. export policy community understand and appreciate. Despite significant growth in global RPA sales, the United States has lost the opportunity to gain a dominate position—and, therefore, shape and manage—the RPA market. In 2010, 60 countries operated military RPAs. By 2019, 95 counties did, and that number is growing. Nearly 40 countries currently operate, or intend to acquire, medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) or high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) aircraft with endurance of over 24 hours and the ability to carry meaningful payloads of weapons or sensors. At least 18 companies in seven nations produce these larger military RPAs.

China is aggressively selling RPAs to whoever is interested. Between 2011 and 2019, dozens of countries acquired armed RPAs, 11 of which bought them from China. The United Arab Emirates has purchased Chinese produced Wing Loong I RPAs and was the first export customer for China’s more sophisticated Wing Loong II armed RPAs. Saudi Arabia purchased a handful of Chinese CH-4 RPAs in 2014 and has since acquired more than a dozen Loong II armed RPAs, and it has expressed an interest in buying 285 more. Pakistan deployed its first operational indigenous RPA in 2015 and increased its RPA force size by procuring Chinese CH-4s. Nigeria also designed its own RPA in 2014 and 2015 but decided to buy the Chinese CH-3A Rainbow RPA instead—and has since placed more orders for CH-4s and the Wing Loong IIs. Iraq also procured the Chinese CH-4B. Chinese companies further penetrated the global RPA marketplace by establishing production lines in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Myanmar, and other countries. Over the same period of time, the United States only sold armed RPAs to one country—France.

There is still an opportunity for the United States to reverse these trends. China has achieved success through a combination of aggressive marketing, conditions-free or constraint-free transfers, and offers to share RPA production jobs with customers. Chinese RPAs also can cost less—up to one-fourth of the price—of some American RPAs. Yet Chinese RPAs are not yet as capable nor as reliable as American-built RPAs. Jordan experienced buyer’s remorse after they purchased several CH-4B “Rainbow” RPAs in 2016. Only two years later, Jordan sought to sell the CH-4Bs at auction, noting their dissatisfaction with their performance.

The Jordan example offers clear insight regarding the opportunity the United States now has to replace China and rebuild relationships by becoming the RPA provider of choice. U.S. RPAs are more capable, more reliable, of better quality, and have a deeper support infrastructure compared to what China can offer. But the window of opportunity is short. If the United States does not quickly act to reverse China’s market expansion and proliferation of RPAs, it may lose the chance to regain its global leadership.


The era of RPA proliferation is here, and the United States risks falling behind its global competitors due to its reticence to export these capabilities. Overly restrictive U.S. RPA export policies persist because of unproven concerns over how these aircraft could be used, how they might impact regional stability, and the potential for them to contribute to regional arms races.

Moreover, overly restrictive RPA export policies reduce opportunities to build U.S. relationships with other countries, undermine its efforts to expand regional alliances and coalitions, diminish U.S. diplomatic and operational influence, and weaken our nation’s industrial base. They also continue to benefit China and other strategic competitors, who can use their RPA exports to create additional avenues to expand their influence and gather intelligence. Since 2014, China has exported more RPAs than any other country, and Russia is not far behind. If this trend continues, the United States may find itself further marginalized in regions of the world where it seeks to wield influence and deter conflict.

RPA export policies should be reformed to affirm America’s commitment to upholding international norms and further its nonproliferation priorities. Working together, the U.S. State Department and Department of Defense should:

  • Define medium and large RPAs, including armed RPAs, as military aircraft instead of cruise missiles for the purposes of export.
  • Engage with other MTCR signatories to affirm the United States’ commitment to nonproliferation while simultaneously removing RPAs as MTCR-controlled technologies.
  • Work with states that are not yet signatories to adopt the 2016 “Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.” The United States should encourage states unwilling to agree to this declaration’s principles in part, if not in whole, as part of RPA export agreements.
  • Convene a working group to enhance monitoring protocols and end-use agreements for armed RPA exports.
  • Engage with allies and partners who have pursued opportunities to purchase Chinese RPAs and encourage them to revisit U.S. RPAs as their system of choice.
  • Publicly articulate the strategic benefits of increasing armed RPA exports including building partner capabilities, protecting the U.S. defense industrial base, and the value of gaining greater influence in the global RPA market.

RPA exports are an important and legitimate tool that can be used to support America’s national interests, promote regional stability, and increase global security. Today, this is a grossly underused tool. Worse still, continuing to adhere to outdated RPA export policies is ceding the global RPA market to China and other adversaries. It is time to recognize that RPAs are aircraft for the purpose of exports to trusted allies and partners that support America’s national security interests. At a time when the U.S. defense establishment is facing an unprecedented array of threats, it can no longer afford to neglect such a valuable tool.