WASHINGTON - The US military and its main suppliers must globalise and adopt more commercial practices to stay competitive, according to a report released this week.
"We're at another tipping point in the evolution of the defence industry," said former US Deputy Defence Secretary William Lynn, who co-chaired a task force that helped shape the report by the Center for a New American Security.
"If we're going to maintain our technological edge, we need to ensure that our industrial strategy and our acquisition structures take account of these commercialization and globalisation forces," said Lynn, who now heads DRS Technologies, a unit of Italy's Finmeccanica SpA.
US military spending is falling, but China, India and other countries are spending more and making strides in development of satellites and other advanced technologies. To maintain revenues, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and other big US firms are increasingly turning to overseas sales and hunting for opportunities in non-defence markets.
Lynn told Reuters the CNAS report was intended as a "warning bell" on the need for changes like those that swept through the auto industry decades ago.
The report said the US weapons industry moves too slowly to adjust to current trends. For example, the Pentagon has switched from taking the lead in developing technologies like GPS satellites and now looks to commercial players for innovations like 3-D printing.
It said industry and government need to invest more in new technologies and remove regulatory and acquisition barriers that hinder US firms.
For instance, export controls have limited the ability of US firms to sell unmanned planes overseas, allowing Israel to become the leading exporter of drones.
Export controls have also hampered commercial sales of infrared technologies developed for the US military, Lynn said. "Our not exporting it doesn't mean it's not available. It just means US companies aren't getting the business, and US jobs aren't being put to use," he said.
The report called for reforms to allow more US and foreign firms to participate in the US weapons market, greater communication about the Pentagon's technology needs and measures to safeguard private intellectual property.
At the same time, it said arms makers need to invest more in new technologies, or acquire companies that already developed them; make greater efforts to design products for export from the start, and encourage more international collaboration.
Former Raytheon Co chief engineer Andy Lowery said cost pressures were prompting shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries and other defence suppliers to adopt virtual reality technologies to cut production costs and improve quality.
Lowery, who is now president of DAQRI, which develops virtual reality software, said smaller, more commercially oriented firms, like privately held Space Exploration Technologies, are quicker to adopt such technologies. "The big companies are interested, but they have a natural propensity to crawl, walk, run," he said.