The Missile Technology Control Regime at 30

We’re please to provide an overview of this event from the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies on February 14, 2018, by two GMU biodefense graduate students – Christopher Lien and Shauna Triplett.

PART I – Christopher Lien
I had the pleasure of attending an in-depth discussion on the work of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), now celebrating its 30th year of operation. Emphasizing the MTCR’s decades of efforts in slowing the spread of unmanned systems designed to carry and deliver weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the discussion highlighted various topics of concern and challenges that face the nonproliferation community in today’s ever-evolving technological and political environment. I detail a few of the key talking points herein.

A recurring theme in the discussion centered on the need for consensus within the nonproliferation community. Ambassador Piet de Klerk, former Chair of the MTCR, emphasized that one must maintain a realistic yet ambitious agenda when interfacing with both member states and non-member states. Learning where the “red lines” are in each individual state’s case and crafting an appropriate plan of action lends itself to fostering a culture of consensus.

Richard Speier of the RAND Corporation provided a summary of the MTCR’s history, from its launch in 1987 up to the present day, and left us with some thoughts for the regime’s future. He briefly detailed the evolution of the definition of an MTCR Category 1 item[1] – complete rocket and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) systems capable of carrying a payload of at least 500 kilograms a distance of at least 300 kilometers. These items and their major subsystems, related technology and software, and even their dedicated production facilities are all subject to ‘strong presumption of denial’ of export. This 300-kg/500-km threshold becomes important again later on.

Several challenges inevitably present themselves with rapid innovations in missile technology. For example, satellite launch vehicles (SLVs) are inherently dual-use in that their technology can be used to carry valuable satellites into orbit while also being interchangeable with large ballistic missiles. Speier highlights the case of Brazil’s space program that, between the 1980s-1990s, concerned United States policy makers – the same solid fuel propellants used to launch satellites into geosynchronous orbit could also have been diverted toward the world’s largest solid fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Michael Elleman, a Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, usefully pointed out that too often SLV programs are equated with ICBM programs – to date no state has ever successfully converted an SLV into an ICBM. He maintains that space programs are not a shortcut to ICBM development and instead directed attention toward the need for countermeasures against newer threats such as hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs) and penetration aids. Hypersonic missiles confound the MTCR 300/500 threshold since they can be effective solely with their kinetic energy for destructive power and oftentimes do not carry any payload. I asked Elleman what existing policies might be or already have been adapted to address this modern threat or if there is a perceived need for the creation of new policies. The encouraging response from both Elleman and Speier was that hypersonic technologies have not been overlooked and research has been conducted studying the methods of hindering hypersonic missile proliferation. Since HCMs rely on advanced propulsion methods such as turbofan engines or scramjets, export controls may be imposed on these engines and their components, fuels for hypersonic use, sensors and navigation items, and other systems used in developing hypersonic vehicles.[2]

Amid the rapid pace of innovations in drone technology and maneuverable re-entry vehicles, political tensions precluding comprehensive nonproliferation cooperation, and questions about the MTCR’s adaptability to these issues, how is the MTCR moving forward?

Today 35 nations strong, the MTCR continues facilitating intelligence sharing on proliferant programs and upholding bilateral cooperation among member states while seeking to establish productive relations with would-be members. Vann Van Diepen, former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, delivered the event’s keynote address focusing on several key accomplishments of the MTCR in its 30 years of operation. The regime deals not only with tangible items subject to export control but also intangibles such as the sharing of technological information. Its control lists have served as models for those of other states, bolstering the environment of consensus among the nonproliferation community. Van Diepen states that the MTCR is now beyond just export control – it is now a full-fledged nonproliferation regime. The MTCR is not a panacea to the proliferation issue, but the regime and its mission continue to be needed.

[1] The Cat. 1 & Cat. 2 definitions are found at #13 in the FAQ section, I as unable to figure out how to anchor the hyperlink to go to that specific spot in the webpage.

[2] These recommended items for export control taken from the document that I hyperlinked in “hypersonic cruise missiles”;
Richard Speier, George Nacouzi, Carrie Lee, and Richard Moore, “Hypersonic Missile Proliferation: Hindering the Spread of a New Class of Weapons,” RAND Corporation (2017), p. 45.

PART II –Shauna Triplett
The Missile Technology Control Regime is wrapping up its 30th year anniversary. This time calls for reflection on the MTCR’s achievements and shortcomings. At this year’s MTCR 30th Year of Operations event at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, MTCR experts reflected on the past three decades. Here are five takeaways:

            Since its founding in 1987, the MTCR has been expanded its regime to 35 nations. Vann Van Diepen, the U.S. Department of States’ Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, outlined the MTCR’s key accomplishments.  He notes these accomplishments as the ability to place successful controls on pace, a strong focus on terrorism, and effective catch-all controls. He notes that the absence of the MTCR would have led to a stronger future for Iran and North Korea’s nuclear intentions. There is no doubt that the MTCR has been necessary over these past 30 years.

            The reflection of accomplishments also calls for the acknowledgement of shortcomings. The biggest concern for the regime is its inability to keep up with technology. Controls are harder to place on complicated weaponry and strategies have not become any simpler to achieve. The regime is faced with the task to update its objectives in order to meet these long-term challenges.

            Ambassador Piet de Klerk of the Netherlands highlighted the stigma that regimes are for the “haves and have-nots”. Looking at the MTCR’s membership would make one believe that it is an elite group for developed nations. Although 35 members are included in the MTCR, it should be noted that only three nations have been added this century. The need for expansion is important now more than ever. In this era of nuclear threat, the MTCR must have a stronger presence and focus on expansion. Although there is a concern of free riders, this is the also the time for the regime to consider whether it is promoting an environment of the “haves and have-nots’. Or is this even a concern to be addressed?

            Rachel Stohl, the Managing Director of the Henry L. Stimson Center, raised the concern of a drone’s place in the MTCR. UADs are expanding massively and Stohl acknowledged that the framework of the MTCR does not fit well with drones due to new technology capabilities. Although Stohl is skeptical of the future of drones in the MTCR, this anniversary is a time to reflect on how to adapt the regime to the expanding technologies of drone capabilities.

            The MTCR may be wrapping up its 30th year, but there’s more work to be done. Richard Speier of the RAND Corporation, notes that the MTCR’s focus should be directed towards DPRK and Iran while being cautious in regard to Turkey, Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, Taiwan, and Japan/Australia. Elleman acknowledges the need to overcome guidance challenges that counter-measures such as maneuverable re-entry vehicles face. He also advises the MTCR to find a strategy that would place controls on short range cruse missiles as well strategize the utilization of high altitude endurance UAVs.

There is no doubt that the MTCR is still necessary, but the regime must be prepared for an increase in challenges. There should be a re-focus on the regimes’ objectives, a better attempt to place controls on new technology, and an expansion of membership. With the increasing threat of nuclear warfare, the anniversary and need for reflection could not have come at a more appropriate time. Now, the MTCR must commit to action.

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