Outside the U.S., Buyers in Hot Pursuit of Night Vision Goggles
By Sandra I. Erwin
Night vision goggle manufacturer Exelis quickly expanded its assembly line in Roanoke, Va., to meet massive Army orders during the buildup to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. U.S. military demand collapsed in recent years, and the company is now relying on foreign customers to keep its plant in operation.
The good news for Exelis is that the international market wants night vision technology, says David Smith, vice president for business development.
“There is a lot of pent-up demand for night vision devices,” he says.
One of the company’s most successful products has been the i-Aware goggle that is connected to a tactical radio. “In the international market, customers are integrating radios with goggles so you can move imagery and video,” Smith says.
Bob Durbin, senior vice president of strategy and government relations, says Exelis has sold $50 million worth of i-Aware goggles to non-U.S. buyers and has another $50 million in back orders. Its main competitor in the overseas market is France’s Photonis.
Smith says it is tough for U.S. companies to compete because exports are more tightly controlled than they are in other countries.
Exelis got into trouble in 2007 when the State Department charged the company with selling sensitive technology to China, Singapore and the United Kingdom without the required export licenses. The firm was banned from the export market until 2010. It was fined $50 million and agreed to invest another $50 million in U.S. military night vision technology.
Smith says export controls must be in place to protect sensitive U.S. technology. But many of the same night vision systems that Exelis sells are available on the open market without restrictions. That hurts U.S. companies, says Smith. “There is not enough business here in the United States to sustain a healthy industrial base,” he says. “We need capability to export and a production base so we can invest in U.S. products.”
Durbin says most of the opportunities are in Asia. Exelis is focused on Australia, South Korea, Japan, India and Taiwan. He is optimistic that the Obama administration’s export control reforms will help U.S. companies compete more fairly. “We are not looking for any special advantage,” he says. The domestic demand for night vision goggles has reduced significantly, and there is a considerable increase in demand overseas.
Another major supplier of night vision systems, L-3 Warrior Systems, also is bullish on the international market. “We see heightened awareness of night vision capabilities” in many countries, says John Morgan, vice president of business development. “The international market is expanding.” The more advanced fusion goggles that combine traditional night vision with infrared imaging are still restricted from export to most countries, says Morgan, although the market is starting to open up for Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.