Yesterday we noted new legislation introduced last week to reform satellite export controls by giving the president the ability to remove satellite and related components from the US Munitions List (USML), although still prohibiting their export to China. However, some caution that the introduction of that legislation doesn’t mean reform is right around the corner.
During a meeting of the Export Controls Working Group of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), congressional staffers, speaking on a not-for-attribution basis, warned that a couple of obstacles will hinder any near-term progress. One is the so-called “Section 1248 report”, after the section of the FY2010 defense authorization act that required the Defense Department to prepare “an assessment of the national security risks of removing satellites and related components from the United States Munitions List.” That report was due in April 2010, but only in the last few days has Congress received an “interim” report. That interim report, according to one staffer, concluded that there are “no unacceptable security risks” of moving commercial satellites and related components off the list. Until the administration releases a final report, not expected until late this year, though, that staffer expected Congress not to act on any reform effort. (Space News has more details on the details of that report.)
The second factor is the administration’s ongoing export control reform efforts, which seek to unify various export control lists and systems. (That work is one reason why the Section 1248 report is so late.) Such an effort is a major, and slow, process. “This is a momentous undertaking,” said a panelist. “Sisyphus had an easier job than what they’re attempting to do with this export control reform.” The thinking on Capitol Hill, according to the panelist, is that Congress prefers to wait to see how that reform effort works out before moving to make changes of its own. There’s also skepticism that the reform effort will work out as the administration has proposed: while there’s support for a unified IT system and even a single, tiered export control list, there’s less support for two other major aspects of the reform effort, creation of a single licensing agency and single enforcement agency.
Panelists also noted one of the challenges for proponents for export control reform has been the difficulty in identifying specific negative impacts on US industry caused by moving satellites and related components to the USML n the late 1990s. While the share of the commercial satellite market held by American manufacturers dropped after that change, other factors could also play a role in that change, and various reports on export control policy have not been able to quantify the its effect on American industry. What has changed minds on Congress about the issue, though, according to one staffer, is the introduction in recent years of “ITAR-free” satellites by European manufacturer Thales Alenia Space. Those satellites, which contain no US-built components, can be freely exported to China for launch there. “That was proof that control of satellites on the ITAR is working against US interests,” said a staffer.
“I think there is a lot of support for moving commercial satellites and related components off the list. I think it’s just a question of timing,” one panelist concluded. And that timing is not particularly urgent.