Owning the night

U.S. defense companies push to keep infrared technology off the State Department's restricted list.

U.S. military commanders have long based mission plans on the expectation they would own the night. Their troops would operate equipped with night vision goggles while the enemy would flail in the darkness.

The Pentagon has held tight export restrictions for infrared detection equipment to maintain that edge. However, the U.S. defense industry is challenging those restrictions, claiming they only put American defense companies at a disadvantage since international competitors produce similar infrared products.

Bloomberg is reporting that Raytheon Co., DRS Technologies Inc. and Flir Systems Inc are leading the charge to not add infrared detectors to the U.S. Munitions List. Raytheon, DRS and Flir are three of the largest U.S. manufacturers of infrared equipment.

The State Department oversees the U.S. Munitions List, a list of articles, technology and services deemed defense- or space-related by the federal government. If the infrared technology is added to the list, the companies who produce it would need a specific Defense Department license to export it.

Pentagon officials, to include former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have pushed to ease foreign military sales restrictions for U.S. defense companies to keep the industry afloat as the Defense Department plans to cut defense spending over the next decade.

As a result, the U.S. defense industry saw arms transfer agreements triple in 2011 compared to 2010. A Congressional Research Service report found the value of the U.S. defense industry’s arms transfer agreements rose from $21.4 billion to $66.3 billion from 2010 to 2011. A large chunk — $56.3 billion — of 2011’s agreements came from developing nations, namely Saudi Arabia.

If infrared was only used in night vision goggles or missile guidance systems, this would be an open and shut case. But there are plenty of non-military uses for infrared technology such as civilian security cameras as Bloomberg’s report pointed out. Putting the technology on the U.S. Munitions List, though, would make it hard for companies to even sell their infrared equipment for civilian uses.

While Flir, Raytheon and DRS Technologies have plenty of military contracts, they do produce infrared equipment outside the military. As defense spending comes down, these companies will need to depend more on the civilian contracts as the military contracts drop.