UAV Proliferation and the Challenge of Change

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A fully-armed U.S. Air Force UAV, a MQ-9 Reaper, taxis down an Afghan runway. Image: U.S. Air Force.

A fully-armed U.S. Air Force UAV, model MQ-9 Reaper, taxis down an Afghan runway. Image: U.S. Air Force.

UAV technology is poised to present the next major challenge to counter-proliferation agencies. Commonly known as “drones,” Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (“UAVs”) have proliferated at an astonishing speed, doubling over a period of seven years and becoming part of military arsenals throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas.  Currently a luxury of wealthy state militaries, drones will become more accessible to black market buyers, as newer UAV models will replace aging inventories of what was formerly state-of-the-art weaponry. Meanwhile, rogue states and non-state terror groups will increasingly work to acquire UAVs. These realities mandate that responsible state actors tackle the issue now while it is in its infancy.

Unfortunately, numerous problems hamper the current international regimes—the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Wassenaar Arrangement—responsible for preventing Unmanned Aerial Vehicle proliferation. Policies of these current proliferation regimes must be amended in order to counter emerging threats.

Both the MTCR and the Wassenaar Arrangement suffer from a club mentality and difficult barriers to entry that excludes the states most prone to proliferation. Unlike other successful non-proliferation regimes—such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (“NPT”) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (“CWC”), where the group dynamic is based on a mutual commitment to disarmament and non-proliferation—the MTCR and Wassenaar Arrangement models are comprised of a relatively small number of states that control highly desirable materials as a means of preventing proliferation. This creates an in-group-out-group dynamic that alienates non-MTCR states. Much of the in-group-out-group tension is due to the fact that many of the materials controlled by the MTCR have legitimate dual-use purposes, thereby disallowing the simple solution of complete prohibition. The net result is one group of states with control and access, and another group of states disenfranchised from power.

The 34-member MTCR is based around a U.S./E.U./Russian axis, estranging the majority of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. States that should cause the most concern for the West regarding proliferation remain excluded from the MTCR. Major proliferators (China), rogue states (Iran), states of questionable stability (Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Pakistan), and those prone to Islamic extremism (Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon, Libya, the Philippines, Morocco, Nigeria, and Syria) all currently possess drones and lack centralized regimes to adequately monitor and regulate them. Some of these proliferators and potential rivals, such as China, have applied for MTCR status, yet were denied admission. Meanwhile, China is rapidly developing a formidable drone program that may soon rival western states and has supplied MTCR-prohibited items, including missiles, to countries including Pakistan, Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Beginning with the transfer of Chinese Silkworm missiles to Iran in 1987, the United States began issuing arms-control related sanctions against China. China, a non-MTCR member, was denied removal of U.S. sanctions in 1991, due to non-compliance to the MTCR. The flawed logic behind sanctioning China for non-compliance to a treaty it never signed only reinforces the aforementioned in-group-out-group dynamic. It is unfair and intellectually dishonest to expect sovereign states that are not granted membership status to adhere to the MTCR in its current form and then punish them when they fail to comply.

The MTCR’s policies encourage an arms industry to flourish outside of its control instead of courting potential allies. Meanwhile, histories of the most successful proliferation regimes, such as the NPT, reveal the superiority of inclusion and incentivized participation. The MTCR should move away from its supply-side control group models and towards inclusion. The best example of an inclusive model remains the marriage of the 1968 NPT with the earlier 1953 Atoms for Peace Program under the Eisenhower administration. Under the Atoms for Peace Program, nuclear assistance was exchanged with developing countries, many of which were emerging from colonialism and eager to receive the economic boons that nuclear technology would provide, for the promise to use nuclear technology exclusively for peaceful purposes. These initiatives have proven largely successful—with all but the most security-challenged states such as Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea—in full compliance with the NPT. Even countries that have persistently mislead International Atomic Energy Association (“IAEA”) investigators, such as Iran and pre-2003 Iraq, still choose to remain members of the NPT rather than withdraw completely. Clearly, most states have chosen to comply and participate with the NPT and the IAEA, something only achievable in an inclusive and relatively-fair system with a strong incentive structure that rewards good behavior.

Another problem with the MTCR is that it is non-binding and lacks its own compliance or enforcement measures. Relying on domestic enforcement via sanctions and political pressure, it attempts to assure compliance among MTCR members. The lack of standardized enforcement or compliance measures means strong states must use political pressure to force weaker states to implement domestic enforcement. This creates an unfair playing field that encourages bullying by stronger states. The MTCR and the Wassenaar Arrangement must move from loose non-binding gentlemen’s agreements to legally-binding regimes with enforceable consequences that are fair for all members.

Considering the rapid rate of UAV proliferation, member states of the MTCR and Wassenaar Arrangement should marry transparent and inclusive amendments with language that deviates from the current Cold War era thinking—such as the over-emphasis on WMD and ballistic missile systems, antiquated range and payload restrictions, loose legal structures, a lack of uniform definitions and enforcement mechanisms, and bi-polar export schemes—and instead embrace current issues and future proliferation trends, including the increasing use of micro UAVs and cruise missiles, the emergence of the developing world in international politics, and the threat of terror-group UAV acquisition. Amendments addressing these new dynamics may ensure that current loopholes in the MTCR and Wassenaar Arrangement are adequately addressed. Member states of the MTCR and Wassenaar Arrangement should adopt inclusive proliferation models and adhere to policies that encourage incentivized participation. Changes such as these would allow the West to avoid an increasingly irrelevant regime structure and would lead to a sustainable proliferation regime that evolves through time, actively engaging new political realities as they emerge.

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C. Michael Cali

C. Michael Cali is a lawyer, independent international relations researcher, and recent graduate of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. He holds a Juris Doctorate in Law, a Master’s Degree in International Relations, and Diplomas in the Advanced Study of Security Studies and the Study of the Leadership of International and Non-Governmental Organizations. Cory is a former Research Assistant to the Institute for National Security and Counter-Terrorism, as well as the former Editor-in-Chief of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis.

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