Missile Technology Decontrol Proposals Are Counterproductive

By Vann H. Van Diepen

On July 8, House Republicans posted draft legislation that would require the United States to drop controls on exports to Australia, Canada, and the UK of Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) items controlled on the U.S. Munitions List (USML)—undoing a requirement to retain such controls enacted by Congress in December 2023.

This proposal comes in the wake of an April 2024 decision by the Commerce Department to remove export controls to Australia and the UK on dual-use MTCR items. All of these actions have been justified in the name of implementing the Australia, United Kingdom, and United States Enhanced Trilateral Security Partnership (AUKUS).

These moves are unnecessary and counterproductive to U.S. national security.

Contrary to the United States' International Commitments

The proposed decontrols are contrary to the United States' international commitment since April 1987 as a member of the MTCR Regime to control “all transfers” of MTCR-listed items “on a case-by-case basis,” and to do so “to any destination.” Dropping these controls breaks the United States' word, calls into question the durability of other U.S. commitments, and creates a precedent for other countries to go back on their word—including on commitments that directly benefit the United States.

Undermines U.S. Security

The application of MTCR controls by the 34 other Regime members and several dozen non-members has reduced the missile threat to the United States and its friends by impeding the quantitative and qualitative development of threatening missile programs. These benefits are undermined if the United States, the MTCR’s leading member, unilaterally contravenes its MTCR commitments. And the MTCR decontrols undercut the United States' ability to:

  • promote conformance with MTCR rules by other countries against missile programs that threaten the United States (such as those of China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and terrorist groups); and
  • convince other countries to take action against proliferant missile programs that threaten the United States, actions that largely rely on the MTCR Regime and Guidelines, such as interdicting technology shipments.

Unnecessary for AUKUS Objectives

Even worse, dropping controls on U.S. MTCR exports to Australia and the UK is entirely unnecessary to promote AUKUS. Under MTCR rules, exports of Category II items are subject to a case-by-case review against six export control and nonproliferation factors that Australia and the UK compare most favorably with. Australia and the UK’s outstanding export control and nonproliferation credentials also provide the United States with a clear basis for overcoming the MTCR Guidelines’ “strong presumption of denial” of Category I exports for AUKUS projects.

Indeed, export licenses for MTCR items to support other US government-endorsed projects with Australia and the UK have been consistently approved for many years—including exports of Category I Tomahawk cruise missiles.

The Bottom Line

The U.S. should abide by its international commitments, just as we expect other countries to do, especially when those countries’ commitments bolster U.S. security. Breaking our word by decontrolling MTCR exports to Australia and the UK will undermine efforts to reduce the missile threat against the United States and its friends, and it is entirely unnecessary to promote the objectives of AUKUS given the almost certain approval of AUKUS-related export licenses for MTCR items.

Vann H. Van Diepen is a former career U.S. nonproliferation official and former acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation