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Modernizing the Missile Technology Control Regime

William Schneider

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The Missile Technology Control Regine (MTCR) and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are the diplomatic foundation agreements for constraining proliferation and delivery of the most destructive technologies invented by man. However, the incorporation of unmanned aerial systems has proven to be counterproductive to the MTCR’s core purpose: preventing the proliferation of cruise and ballistic missile systems for the delivery of WMD. According to a report prepared for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in response to Section 1276 of the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, the MTCR has not achieved its core purpose. The report concluded that the MTCR’s impact and effectiveness in controlling Category I systems (complete cruise and ballistic missile systems) “had eroded,” and the security of US and allied forces had been “negatively affected while the threat to U.S. and allied troops from foreign-made UAVs, mostly from China, has increased.”1 MTCR in its current form is fatally flawed. No tweaking of the provisions relating to UAS, such as velocity, range, or system payload weight, will mitigate the destructive impact of incorporating UAS into the MTCR.

The United States and the international community are losing focus on the main event—the proliferation of cruise missiles. Both China and Russia are building—and exporting—nuclear-capable cruise missiles designed for clandestine deployment and launch from commercial shipping containers.2 Moreover, technologies readily available on the international market can be used to significantly improve short-range cruise missiles—their delivery accuracy, range, payload, and reduction in the radar cross section—and this has been well known for a quarter century.3

Iran is now providing ballistic missiles it received with help from North Korea and China—flight tested in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231—to its Houthi Shia terrorist allies operating in Yemen. Syria is using Russian/Soviet-era SCUD short-range ballistic missiles adapted for chemical weapons payloads. Furthermore, it stepped up its use of helicopter and tactical aircraft to deliver barrel bomb chlorine and sarin chemical weapon payloads after the US failed to act on its 2012 declaration that this would be a redline that could trigger US intervention.4

The United States should apply the same rigor to the State Department’s case-by-case munitions licensing system for the export of UAS that is currently applied to manned systems, but should otherwise make no distinction between manned and unmanned systems.

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1 George Nacouzi et al., Assessment of the Proliferation of Certain Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems: Response to Section 1276 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, RAND Corporation, 2018,
2 “China Is Building Long-Range Cruise Missiles Launched from Ship Containers,” Navy Recognition, April 8, 2019,; Russia’s SS-N-30 Kalibr in a four-missiles per twelve-meter commercial shipping container is a mature system. “Kalibr Missile System. Kalibr Cruise Missile. Combat Missile System,”,
3 The now-ancient Chinese Silkworm short-range cruise missile could be upgraded to a 2,000-km range system. Dennis Gormley, Transfer Pathways for Cruise Missiles, Appendix III in the Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States (1997),
4 Eliot Higgins, A Brief Open Source History of the Syrian Barrel Bomb, Bellingcat, July 8, 2015, Syria acceded in 2013 to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the use of chemical weapons. Nevertheless, it continued its use of both sarin and chlorine with lethal effect, killing 1,500 civilians. James Taranto, “Obama’s Red-Line Debacle from the Inside,” Wall Street Journal, June 8, 2018,, and Kareem Shaheen, “Almost 1500 Killed in Chemical Weapons Attacks in Syria,” Guardian, March 14, 2016,

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