December 24, 2012
Credit: Photo Credit: Boeing Concept
Five years ago, the idea of easing export controls on commercial satellites was politically unthinkable. That mindset has changed during the last half decade, as the idea that those restrictions are harming both national security and the U.S. industry base has gradually gained traction.
And during a year in which the U.S. Congress barely passed even routine bills, lawmakers came together to shed long-standing restrictions on the export of commercial satellites.
“This evolution on satellite export regulations means that major U.S. satellite manufacturers will be more able to collaborate with international partners and finally places U.S. component makers on a more even footing in the global marketplace,” says Patricia Cooper, president of the Satellite Industries Association.
Lawmakers signed off on a fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill that allows the president to remove commercial satellites and components from the U.S. Munitions List (USML) and allows him to decide which satellite technologies are the most important to protect. The bill still restricts the export and transfer of technology to China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.
Satellites and related items were placed under regulations in 1999, because of fears about dual-use satellite technology helping China develop its own launch and missile technologies. At that time, a congressional commission found that satellite companies knowingly transferred technical information to China. The debate began to shift very gradually. In 2008, a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies laid out the unintended consequences of the restrictions. It described how important it was to defense and intelligence efforts for the U.S. to retain its technical edge, and the report drew a strong link between the industry's competitiveness and the nation's security. Afterward, industry sources say, the conversation began to shift in favor of lifting the regulations.
By 2010, Congress formally asked for an assessment of the national security risks of removing satellites and components from the USML. The study, known as the 1248 report, was finally delivered last April.
Remy Nathan, vice president of international affairs for the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), calls it “the right report at the right time.” It made the case that restrictions could be lifted, that lifting them was necessary to preserve national security and provided a Congress with enough detail to direct legislative change.