Weapons Builders Bank on Proliferation of Drones

Northrop Grumman, which recently unveiled a new Navy surveillance drone, is among the companies that want looser restrictions on exports. (Photo: LA Times)

Weapons Builders Bank on Proliferation of Drones

Lobbyists for military contractors complain about export restrictions on surveillance and drone technology

US weapons manufacturers who sell drone aircraft to the US government are concerned that their pilot-less surveillance and attack planes sales have plateaued and now, with the help of lobbyists and industry-friendly members of Congress, are hoping that they can remove export restrictions that will allow them to sell theses weapons to foreign governments eager for the remote technology.

According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, companies like Northrup Gruman and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., are eager to tap a growing foreign appetite for high-tech drones, and claim they are facing competition in the world market by countries such as Israel and China.

"Export restrictions are hurting this industry in America without making us any safer," Wesley G. Bush, Northrop's chief executive, said at a defense conference this year. "The U.S. is struggling to sell unmanned aircraft to our allies while other nations prepare to jump into the marketplace with both feet."

The restrictions are part of an arms export control treaty signed by the United States and thirty-four other countries in 1987 (when drone technology was more science fiction than reality). The agreement placed a limit on the sale of remote-controlled aircraft according to size, range, and weapons capability.

As the industy pushes for increased arms sales, Republican and Democratic friends in Congress pull.

In its latest assessment of the industry, aerospace research firm Teal Group Corp., according to the Times, estimated that worldwide drone spending will almost double over the next decade, to $11.4 billion in 2022 from $6.6 billion next year.

"Defense contractors know that demand in the U.S. is expected to flatten out," said Teal Group analyst Phil Finnegan. "The real growth will be in international markets."

And if the industry is pushing for more sales in the global market, there will be plenty of pulling for them in Congress and in the White House. Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Los Angeles), ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Times that the Obama administration has begun an initiative to change export rules that will roll back many of the restrictions on the way technology is sold to foreign countries.

"It's crazy for us to shut off sales in this area while other countries push ahead," he said.

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