State Department Seeks to Allow Export of More Night-Vision Gear

The State Department wants to loosen restrictions on sales of sensitive night-vision technologies for commercial uses, the latest chapter in the Obama administration’s attempt to revamp export regulations.

The proposed rule is being released Tuesday for a 60-day industry comment period. It affects Category XII of the department’s Munitions List covering focal plane arrays, range finders, optical and guidance technologies, image intensifier tubes and low-light sensors.

The administration’s effort seeks to draw a “bright line” between technologies that must remain under the State Department’s strict licensing regime and those that belong on the less restrictive Commerce Department Control List, according to the draft regulation.

For several years, State and Defense Department officials have been discussing concerns about the extent of night-vision technologies that can be used in items for export. These include technologies for automobile collision avoidance, commercial security cameras, thermography to detect heat leaks in homes, underwater imaging, gas detection and utility inspections.

If it’s adopted, the rule would position U.S. companies to compete more effectively overseas with companies from France, China, Israel, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Belarus, according to Commerce Department data.

Companies Pressing

Among the companies pressing the U.S. since 2012 to clarify and liberalize the export rules are Raytheon Co., DRS Technologies Inc., Flir Systems Inc. and L-3 Communications Holdings Inc.

“There are a couple of reasons this was the last major category to be rewritten,” said Joel Johnson, an export control analyst with the Fairfax, Virginia-based Teal Group, said in an e-mail.

Because of U.S. prowess in night operations “the military, particularly ground forces, has been reluctant to let go of anything to do with light-intensification technology that might reduce this advantage,” Johnson said. “Never mind that other countries were providing such technology in sporting and marine catalogs.”

Second, “this is an area, along with lasers, that is moving rapidly in the commercial world and hard to keep up with,” Johnson said. Self-driving automobiles will be using lasers and night vision “that will likely surpass the military in price and quality in a few years,” Johnson said.

Foreign Companies

An October 2012 Commerce Department Bureau of Industry and Security “critical technology assessment” of night-vision focal plane arrays, sensors and cameras concluded that foreign companies not bound by export controls had a strong presence in the world market.

“The number of current and projected dual-use product lines for night-vision sensor components and imaging equipment is greater than the number of military-use only product lines,” also, it said.

In one major proposed revision to the State Department rules, once a focal plane array used for night-vision technologies has been incorporated into a “higher order assembly” commercial product, such as into a camera core, it would no longer be controlled by Munitions List licensing requirements.

The array or other type of chip alone, as well as the technology to manufacture it, would remain under the Munitions List restrictions.

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