SINGAPORE – Military brass shopping at Asia’s biggest defense expo this week have drones high on their to-buy list. But for U.S. manufacturers, there’s one problem: They can only sell to a few countries because of tight export restrictions.
Those controls give rival drone makers from countries such as Israel and China a chance to win more business in the growing global market for unmanned aerial vehicles.
U.S. arms-makers have been lobbying the government for several years to loosen the restrictions so they can sell their systems to more countries.
They fear their established market is shrinking as domestic defense spending is squeezed and the U.S. military withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan.
American aerospace companies are showing off the latest missiles, attack helicopters and fighter jets at the Singapore Airshow, but they may find foreign rivals have the upper hand in cutting more deals for drones.
Exports of drones are tightly controlled by an agreement signed by members of a group called the Missile Technology Control Regime, which includes the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.
The group has since expanded to 34 countries, but Israel and China aren’t members.
Officials at companies such as Northrop Grumman, which makes the high-altitude Global Hawk, argue that the restrictions hurt competitiveness in a market that Teal Group Co. forecasts will expand to $11.6 billion in 2023 from $5.2 billion last year.
At the same time, human rights groups and some U.S. politicians have been increasingly critical of drone strikes for killing civilians.
Israeli drone makers, including Elbit Systems Ltd. and Israel Aviation Industries Ltd., or IAI, had big displays at the Singapore Airshow.
Israel has overtaken the U.S. as the world’s largest exporter of unmanned aerial systems, selling $4.6 billion worth from 2005 to 2012, according to a report by consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.
In the same period, U.S. overseas sales amounted to $2 billion to $3 billion.
Meanwhile, China’s rapidly maturing drone capabilities are alarming experts.
China is positioning itself so that any country on the planet that, for political or financial reasons, is restricted from purchasing American or allied drones will be able to go to Beijing and get a comparable platform, said Ian Easton, a research fellow at the 2049 Project Institute security think tank.
He co-authored a recent report on China’s drones.