U.S. Export Restrictions Undermine Domestic Robotics Industry
Defense and aerospace industry leaders for years have complained about U.S. export controls that restrict their companies' global competitiveness. For suppliers of unmanned weapons, the restrictions are becoming an increasingly greater concern as more countries seek to acquire armed drones and other robotic technologies.
The global market for unmanned systems is hot, but U.S. manufacturers are unable to capitalize on the rising demand, said Wes Bush, chief operating officer and president of Northrop Grumman Corp.
“Today’s export restrictions are hurting this industry in the U.S. without making us any safer, and it could cause the U.S. to relinquish the cutting edge to other countries, ultimately,” Bush said Aug. 17 in a keynote speech at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference, in Washington, D.C.
If U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations do not change, American firms stand to lose an estimated $94 billion worth of global sales in the next 10 years, he said. More than 50 countries have purchased unmanned surveillance aircraft.
The robotics sector is following in the footsteps of the satellite industry, which lost billions of dollars in sales after Congress passed restrictive export laws in the late 1990s that put satellites in the same category as "munitions" to keep China from obtaining U.S. space technology.
“We’ve seen this play out before … We made it impossible for U.S. companies to sell satellites to our allies. We somehow thought that we had a corner on that technology—satellites—but we were very badly mistaken,” said Bush. “The very policies that were intended to keep this technology secure for us actually encouraged others who could not buy it from us to develop their own. In fact, they even market their products as ITAR-free,” he said. “America lost valuable export opportunities and we are no safer as a result. We need to learn from that lesson and several other lessons just like it.”
The good news, he said, is that the Obama administration has been pushing new export reforms that would enable U.S. companies to more easily sell technology to allies. The U.S. government, for instance, is working with Germany on common uses of the Air Force’s Global Hawk high altitude long endurance surveillance aircraft. Bush added that there is potential for collaboration with NATO and other key allies on the Northrop Grumman-developed system. “These are positive indicators that perhaps we will not make the mistakes that were made in satellites. But we need to continue to push collectively,” he said.