Why the U.S. Is Driving Allies to Buy Chinese UAVs

No new aviation technology has altered the modern battlefield more over the past 25 years than unmanned aerial vehicles. Whether as unarmed eyes in the sky or as remote-controlled snipers, UAVs have changed battlefield tactics and the nature of modern combat.

Now, as these aircraft mature and gain in speed, payload capacity, and sophistication, the U.S. military remains hamstrung in its ability to collaborate with foreign partners on new systems or even to help sell most UAVs to America’s closest allies.

The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies released Modernizing Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Export Policy for Effective Coalition Forces, a new report by Senior Fellow Heather Penney, June 3 at a virtual press conference and presentation that began with Mitchell’s Director of Research, retired Maj. Gen. Larry Stutzriem, posing the question: “Why is it easier for America’s allies to buy unmanned aircraft from China than it is from the United States?”

Video: Mitchell Institute on YouTube

The short answer delivered by Penney: The U.S. is prisoner to a non-binding voluntary, informal agreement to limit the proliferation of missiles and missile technology. Established in 1987 to control nuclear proliferation, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) defines unmanned systems as nuclear missiles.

This is wrong, Penney argues: “UAVs are aircraft. They are not cruise [missiles], they are not ballistic missiles. …. We should begin treating them as aircraft. That’s essential to our future.” An early version of the Mitchell paper appeared in the March issue of Air Force Magazine.  

Joining Stutzriem and Penney for the reports release was Keith Webster, president of the Defense and Aerospace Export Council at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He said the reasons for the original construct of the MTCR are clear enough, but the change in technology since that time demands a fresh look.

“China is an adversary,” said Webster, who was director of International Cooperation at the Pentagon from 2012 to 2017. “We should not be opening any doors for China and its military or intelligence groups to infiltrate the relationships we have with allies and partners.”

Yet absent the U.S. ability to provide advanced unmanned aircraft to allies like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others, these countries have little choice. If they can’t get the systems and technology they need from the U.S., they will turn to China or others—arms exporters that have fewer strings attached.

Now, instead of building these critical links to allies, he said, “We are eroding those relationships with these decisions.”

The implications stretch far beyond the sale of a few sophisticated systems. Once allies turn to adversaries as alternative suppliers, the U.S. loses influence in its military-to-military and political-diplomatic relationships, Webster argued.  “It impacts adversely the ability of the United States to provide partner nations future advanced capabilities, because now they have an adversary as an advisor on the base, and [adversary’s] platforms on the tarmac.”

Chinese capabilities today remain inferior compared to U.S. systems, but the technology gap is narrowing, Webster said. “Every year they’re getting better. And I have no doubt they will get much better, much more accurate” over time.

Future weapons development is also challenged under the regime. “Even with our closest allies … we are denied the ability to cooperatively develop Category One UAS/UAV capability—even with the UK, … which to me is absolutely mind boggling,” Webster said. The same partner nations that contribute to the F-35 are not allowed to contribute to development of an unmanned aircraft that is infinitely less sophisticated.

Webster and Penney said that U.S. efforts to define Category 1 UAVs as those operating below 800 km/h were rejected by MTCR participants, and that suggestions to propose a 600 km/hr limit may help in the short term, but will fall short when it comes to advanced systems such as a “loyal wingman” UAV that operates in tandem with manned jets.

“This really equates to 300-320 knots, which is not a tactical air speed,” Penney said. “It is insufficient to be able to support future technologies and the types of manned-unmanned teaming concepts we have going forward.”

The simple answer, she said, is to recognize UAVs as aircraft, rather than missiles, accepting the reality of what has been seen on battlefields for nearly a quarter century.