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Congress urged to ease satellite export controls

The nation’s export controls on satellites and related items require modernisation, according to the Departments of Defense and State.

In a joint final report issued to Congress on 18 April, the two departments recommended that communications and some remote-sensing satellites should be taken off of the tightly controlled US Munitions List (USML).

Because these items—which include communications satellites that contain no classified components, and remote-sensing satellites with performance parameters below certain thresholds—are on the USML, the President does not have the legal authority to adjust the controls to ensure that they meet US national security requirements and do not unintentionally harm the US satellite industry or its supplier base, the Obama administration explained in a same-day fact sheet.

“Current law forces the US government to continue to protect commonly available satellites and related items on the USML, thus impeding the US ability to work with partners and putting US manufacturers at a disadvantage, but providing no noticeable benefit to national security,” the joint report concluded.

It found that other nations have fewer export controls than the US on commercial space and space-related items.

The departments said that many commercial satellite systems, subsystems, components, and related technologies have become less critical to national security over the past 15 years, because of the transition from military to predominantly civilian uses.

Examples cited include direct broadcast television, satellite communications, and earth mapping. They said export controls over these items should reflect their decreased sensitivity while still ensuring that they cannot be used to significantly improve the military capabilities of another country.

Nevertheless, the report advised Congress that the US should maintain strict controls on transfers of non-critical space-related items, particularly where they are likely to be used against US national interests.

If the report’s recommendations are implemented, the White House said, they would improve the long-term health and competitiveness of the US satellite industrial base.

The administration cited one industry assessment indicating that the nation’s space industry, including its supplier chain, remains disadvantaged by export controls. That analysis noted that the US held 73 per cent of the worldwide share of satellite exports in 1995, but just 25 per cent by 2005.

The Aerospace Industries Association welcomed the report, emphasising that its member companies have long sought such recommendations because satellites are the only widely available commercial technology singled out for restrictive export controls.

But Ohio Republican Rep. Mike Turner, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee, said the administration’s “request for blanket authority to relax our export control regime over thousands of space technologies” would not make the US safer, or further its goals.

“For four years the State Department has dragged its feet on enforcing the current regime; specifically when it comes to companies the Department believes have illegally diverted our space technology to China,” the lawmaker asserted.

“Asking for this authority, with those facts in mind, suggests a lack of seriousness about the Administration’s commitment to protecting US space technology,” he added.