Four out of four experts agree: there need to be reforms to the nation’s export control policies in order keep the US competitive in science and technology, particularly in space. That was the theme of a hearing Wednesday by the House Science and Technology Committee that explored the issue. Based on the statements by the four witnesses, as well as press releases from the full committee and the Republican caucus, most everyone is in agreement that there need to be changes so that regulations balance the need to ensure national security while allowing US companies a greater latitude in selling components overseas and collaborating with foreign companies and organizations. The exact path forward isn’t clear, although committee chairman Rep. Bart Gordon said that he hopes that an OSTP-led study of the effects of export control regulations, which was in the House version of the NASA authorization act of 2008 but dropped from the final version, will be carried out by the office anyway in the near future.
(Favorite quote from the committee press release, by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords: “Export control is not a subject that Americans discuss around the dinner table, but it does affect every one of us.” In the space industry, it seems, export control reform is discussed pretty much everywhere, including around the dinner table. Doing something about it, though, is another matter.)
However, one member of the committee, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, used a Wall Street Journal report [subscription required] about European satellite operator Eutelsat reportedly signing a deal to launch a satellite on a Chinese booster as a warning not to go too far in export control reform. In a statement released by his office, he agreed that ITAR reform is necessary but “we need to remain vigilant that our advanced technology doesn’t end up in the hands of nations who proliferate weapons of mass destruction”—specifically, the Chinese. Noting that Eutelsat sells communications services to the Defense Department, he claimed that “this is the beginning of a game of chicken between Eutelsat and the Obama administration. If the Obama administration does nothing, the message is clear—transferring technology to proliferators of weapons of mass destruction like the Peoples Republic of China is a perfectly acceptable business model.”
The flaw in this argument is that while the satellite Eutelsat plans to launch on a Chinese booster might contain technologies on the US Munitions List had they come from US companies, the satellite in question is most likely a so-called “ITAR-free” satellite built by Thales Alenia Space (such as the W3B satellite Eutelsat ordered from Thales last year) that contains no US-built components that would fall under the jurisdiction of the ITAR. It, in effect, becomes an argument for ITAR reform: since these components are now commercially available outside the US, controlling the ability of US companies to export the same components does little to ensure national security, and can even be counterproductive.