LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
The defense industry is one sector that has not expected much good news in the way of jobs. Manufacturers worldwide are facing tough times ahead as tight budgets force Western governments to cut spending. But while the West is cutting back, developing countries around the world are spending more on defense - a lot more.
NPR's Larry Abramson reports the result is uncertainty in the defense industry.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Last fall, defense contractors warned of massive layoffs if the U.S. government enacted the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. Now, sequestration is in effect, but job losses are limited. That's in part because many Pentagon contracts were already in place, and will keep assembly lines rolling for much of this year.
But Cord Sterling, of the Aerospace Industries Association, says soon those old contracts will run dry.
CORD STERLING: That's when you see the reductions in personnel, that's when you see the idling of plants and equipment because there won't be the new funding coming in.
ABRAMSON: Manufacturers have known for some time that defense spending by the U.S. and European countries is headed downhill. But they are finding hope in the insatiable appetite for arms spending in other parts of the world.
Paul Burton, a senior manager at IHS Janes, says that Asian countries in particular feel threatened, and they're ramping up their defense budgets.
PAUL BURTON: They're all looking to upscale. They're all coming from a very low base. They're all cognizant of the threat that China poses and want to ensure that they can protect their national security.
ABRAMSON: Burton forecasts that defense spending by Asia Pacific nations will overtake North America within the next decade. Sure, China accounts for much of this growth, but defense budgets across Asia are growing from India to South Korea. Same goes for the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; are planning to double defense spending over the next decade. And don't forget Latin America.
David Fitzpatrick of Alix Partners says defense firms are jockeying to win the biggest defense market in South America: Brazil.
DAVID FITZPATRICK: They have a defense procurement need that they cannot meet themselves, they are not off-limits to any of the players, and so it's a real battle to gain their business.
ABRAMSON: U.S. firms looking to Brazil or other countries are facing a lot more competition from manufacturers overseas. Paul Burton of IHS Janes says, for example, the U.S. is about to lose its lead in the manufacture of unmanned aerial vehicles.
BURTON: And we actually forecast that Israel will sell more UAV or drones than the U.S. by 2014.
ABRAMSON: Burton notes, the drone business still makes up a small portion of the international arms trade. He says, the U.S. will continue to dominate sales of big ticket items, like fighter jets. Israel's rise in this and other areas, Burton says, is a symbol of the growing competition U.S. manufacturers face.
Defense firms can find some solace in other growth areas, such as cybersecurity and homeland security. The homeland defense market is already large, and it got a potential boost last week. The immigration bill passed by the U.S. Senate requires the purchase of billions in surveillance equipment.
David Fitzpatrick of Alix Partners says homeland security may be promising but it has limited potential for defense firms looking to replace Pentagon contracts.
FITZPATRICK: It will help slow it down, the reductions down, but I don't think it's got the magnitude across the board to replace the jobs that are lost when the U.S. DOD reduces its requirements.
ABRAMSON: Amidst all this uncertainty, defense firms with a strong civilian component may be in the best position. Demand for airliners remains high, with a backlog of orders that should keep business going during the defense slowdown.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
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