Northrop CEO pushes for unmanned export reforms

Unmanned systems-makers want Washington to make it easier for them to do business internationally.

Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush said Wednesday the United States must relax its controls on the export of unmanned systems or it’ll risk harming the nascent industrial base that builds them. Bush warned that America risks repeating a phenomenon that hurt its space industry, when U.S. companies were forbidden from selling communications satellites to American allies because policymakers feared losing the edge in space. But international clients didn’t stop wanting space technology, they just developed it themselves or bought it elsewhere, hurting America’s industrial base without helping its national security.

“Today, the U.S. is struggling to sell unmanned aircraft to its allies while other nations prepare to jump into the marketplace with both feet.” Bush said. “The thinking seems to be allies won’t buy their own, nor build them,” but established and growing militaries, like India’s, want UAVs no matter what, and if American companies don’t build them, others will.

The “good news,” Bush said, is that DoD officials are on board with reforming America’s export controls, “building higher walls around fewer things.” He encouraged an industry audience in Washington at the conference of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International to keep up pressure on Congress and the rest of the Obama administration to lower the barriers to more international sales.

Defense industry complaints about U.S. export restrictions are nothing new, but they’ve taken on a heightened pitch as companies eye the coming decades of diminished Pentagon budget growth. Even though international defense spending also will likely stay flat or shrink, American firms want to get the most business they can while they have the biggest technological edge in unmanned technology.

Thomas Kalil, deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told AUVSI attendees the Obama administration is onboard with export reform – he cited an official finding that today’s rules are hurting both America’s economic and national security interests. But Kalil didn’t give any specifics about how or when the White House could act on its own – or enlist the help of Congress – to change the rules.