Assessment of the Proliferation of Certain Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems

Response to Section 1276 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017

by George Nacouzi, J.D. Williams, Brian Dolan, Anne Stickells, David Luckey, Colin Ludwig, Jia Xu, Yuliya Shokh, Daniel M. Gerstein, Michael H. Decker

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Research Questions

  1. What are the scope and scale of the proliferation of RPAs that are category I items under the MTCR?
  2. What threat does their proliferation among adversaries pose to U.S. interests?
  3. What impact does the proliferation of such aircraft have on the combat capabilities of and interoperability with allies and partners of the United States?
  4. To what degree has the United States limited the proliferation of such aircraft as a result of the application of a "strong presumption of denial" for exports of such aircraft?
  5. What are the benefits and risks of continuing to limit exports of such aircraft?

Section 1276 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2017 requires an independent assessment, directed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of the impact that certain remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) governed by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) have on U.S. national security interests. The NDAA requires that this evaluation, in the form of a report, be delivered to the congressional defense committees. The congressional language specifically requires that the assessment include evaluation in six areas: (1) a qualitative and quantitative assessment of the scope and scale of the proliferation of RPAs that are category I items (that is, those presumed not to be exportable) under the MTCR; (2) an assessment of the threat that the proliferation of such aircraft among adversaries poses to U.S. interests; (3) an assessment of the impact that the proliferation of such aircraft has on the combat capabilities of and interoperability with allies and partners of the United States; (4) an analysis of the degree to which the United States has limited the proliferation of such aircraft as a result of the application of a "strong presumption of denial" for exports of such aircraft; (5) an assessment of the benefits and risks of continuing to limit exports of such aircraft; and (6) such other matters as the chair considers appropriate. This report contains the results of the researchers' findings and assessment.

Key Findings

The MTCR Is Only One of Many U.S. Control Mechanisms to Which an Export Request Is Subjected

  • Maintaining the MTCR controls has potential security, economic, and political consequences.
  • The MTCR's effects on security considerations are somewhat negative because U.S. allies and partners are being negatively affected while the threat to U.S. and allied troops from foreign-made UAVs, mostly from China, has increased.
  • The economic impact on the United States is negative because fewer sales are occurring.
  • Political impact would appear to be neutral but varies by measured factors.

The MTCR's Impact and Effectiveness in Controlling Category I UAVs Has Eroded

  • A subset of category II systems is widely proliferated. These systems have capabilities that are near those of category I systems but with smaller payloads, so the strict category I restrictions do not apply.
  • Several nations are now developing and openly marketing category I systems for sale to both MTCR and non-MTCR nations.
  • Non-MTCR nations with the capability to manufacture category I systems (e.g., China) have also marketed these systems and, in one case, are building coproduction facilities to produce them.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Directorate for Intelligence and conducted within the Cyber and Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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