If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then the US defense industry should be awfully proud of itself. Just look around the world at all of the new unmanned systems in development. In today’s Washington Post, there’s a great piece on the global proliferation of unmanned drones, and the implications for both the US military and industry. My favorite quote was this little nugget:
“The United States doesn’t export many attack drones, so we’re taking advantage of that hole in the market,” said Zhang Qiaoliang, a representative of the Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute, which manufactures many of the most advanced military aircraft for the People’s Liberation Army. “The main reason is the amazing demand in the market for drones after 9/11.”
This quote captures the horrible crunch that our industry and government partners face as a result of strict US export rules. On one hand, we don’t want our best technologies falling into the hands of the bad guys. On the other hand, we’re giving Mr. Zhang (quoted above) a pretty strong market incentive to copy our technologies at a lower cost and beat us over the head in global markets. That stings.
Doom and gloom aside, I think this analysis, while excellent, misses an important point. China, India, Russia and Israel can have all the drones they want, and probably will. What they don’t have is almost as important as what they do have: Global Positioning Systems, highly encrypted SATCOM, and other high dollar systems that make the US drones a more integrated component of our arsenal. I’m not losing any sleep just yet, but this is a trend to keep your eye on.