What MTCR Membership Means for India, and What It Doesn’t

India's formal membership of the Missile Technology Control Regime is being hailed as a breakthrough, but the implications may be somewhat less dramatic.

File photo of the BrahMos missile, a joint India-Russia venture. Credit: PTI

File photo of the BrahMos missile, a joint India-Russia venture. Credit: PTI

In the 18 years since its nuclear tests, India’s pursuit of nuclear legitimacy has taken several forms. Successive governments have renounced further tests, promulgated defensive nuclear doctrines and accepted international supervision. These and similar steps have not been cost-free. They have been taken – for better or worse – not only to burnish a claim to responsible global leadership, but also to lubricate the inward flow of technology.

As part of this effort, India has placed particular emphasis on joining key export control regimes that, ironically, echo the technology denial that India faced and protested for decades. India now stands on the cusp of joining one of those groupings, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), as Devirupa Mitra explained on June 7. This has been a long road. In 2005, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised India’s “harmonisation and adherence” to MTCR guidelines, as part of the US-India civil nuclear deal being negotiated at the time. By 2008, then President George W. Bush notified the US Congress that India had successfully done this. Formal membership, a decade on, is being hailed as a historic breakthrough. But the implications may be somewhat less dramatic.    

The MTCR places voluntary restrictions on its members’ exports of missile and missile-related technology, particularly on so-called Category I systems. These are systems capable of carrying a payload of at least 500 kilograms to a distance of at least 300 kilometres – a definition that includes both cruise missiles and larger drones. Members must exercise a “strong presumption to deny such transfers”, taking into account the risk of the technology being used for nuclear delivery systems or falling into the hands of terrorists. The regime is far from watertight – France and Britain, both members, have probably sold Category I items to non-members UAE and Saudi Arabia, respectively – but it does have a constraining effect nevertheless.

Indian membership to the regime has two implications. First, India’s accession will be seen as strengthening its own export controls, therefore lessening those risks and making it easier for other MTCR members to justify transferring sensitive technology to India. Second, while MTCR guidelines themselves do not explicitly distinguish between transfers to members and non-members – they focus instead on what is being exported and end-use, rather than the membership status of the recipient – American law does make this distinction. In particular, it specifically targets foreigners who help the missile programmes of MTCR non-members. And despite India’s “harmonisation” with the guidelines, US legislators have declared that “India is not an MTCR adherent”. India’s formal membership will presumably mean that other countries can be less fearful of US sanctions if they wish to sell to India.

What membership will mean in practice

India’s space programme will be an obvious beneficiary, albeit belatedly – in the 1990s, New Delhi’s pursuit of Russian cryogenic engine technology was stymied by the MTCR. But local commentary has focussed on the positive effect of membership on India’s effort to acquire armed Predator drones from the US. While non-MTCR members like Morocco have been sold unarmed versions used primarily for surveillance, only MTCR members like Italy have received the sought-after armed drones. So while it’s true that the voluntary MTCR was never an absolute obstacle to a drone transfer – consider how France and the United Kingdom bent the rules – it’s clear that, at the very least, it would have complicated any American sale to India.  

But it’s important to remember that the MTCR was just one of many obstacles. In all likelihood, the US is likely to treat the export of armed drones to India with much more caution than it does to NATO allies. Not only is India working on nuclear-capable cruise missiles that could, in theory, benefit from drone technology – the two platforms have much in common, as Dennis Gormley has explained – but US officials will also be hesitant to expand India’s perceived options for striking Pakistan. Such concerns are, of course, exaggerated if not misplaced. Indian drones in Pakistan would face a drastically less permissive environment than their CIA counterparts, which fly in specially cleared airspace. They will have greater utility for border patrol than retaliatory strikes. Given the ambition and momentum of the US-India defence engagement, my guess is that India will eventually get its hands on armed drones – but it will be a very rocky road, even with the MTCR membership in India’s pocket.

The question of BrahMos exports

Many commentators have also argued that membership will ease the way for New Delhi to export its supersonic BrahMos cruise missile, co-developed with Russia. “With MTCR sanction,” wrote defence journalist Shiv Aroor, “India has the badge-pin it needs to process interest from countries like UAE, Chile and South Africa”. In early June, India’s defence minister Manohar Parrikar visited Hanoi to discuss the possibility of a sale to Vietnam, which – like India – has significant concerns over Chinese assertiveness in the region. Other outlets echoed the link between the MTCR and BrahMos exports. “India could be allowed to sell Brahmos missiles”, repeated NDTV in its discussion of the MTCR. Membership “would help it … export missiles,” agreed a writer in the Indian Express. Firstpost was the most effusive of all, breathlessly telling us, “…it’s a feather in Modi’s cap that the development will make India a significant arms exporter for the first time”. These arguments are, at best, deeply confused.

The BrahMos’ range is reported to be – suspiciously – fractionally below the threshold for the MTCR. Indian membership, therefore, makes no difference to whether New Delhi can export it or not. After all, MTCR member Russia co-developed BrahMos with non-member India; ipso facto, the regime alone cannot be a stumbling block to Indian transfers to a third party. But if, as many suspect, the BrahMos’ true range has been understated, and it is in fact covered by the regime, then India’s membership makes export harder, not easier, not least because all of these potential customers, apart from South Africa, are not MTCR members. India can of course point to past British and French missile sales. It can also emphasise the voluntary nature of MTCR commitments. But this would hardly be a propitious start to India’s MTCR membership and it would inevitably shape other countries’ deliberations over transfers to India. And those, in the short to medium term, are more consequential for Indian national security than exports.

In truth, the question of BrahMos exports – a longstanding touchstone of some hawks – is and will remain far more intimately bound up with geopolitics, and the India-China and Russia-China relationships in particular, than the specifics of export control. But Indian officials will not be especially pleased that BrahMos have been curiously dragged into this discussion in the first place.

Shashank Joshi is a senior research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute and author of Indian Power Projection: Ambition, Arms and Influence.