September 17, 2013
It is a plausible approach on its face. The U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) is a detailed list of munitions no one wants to fall into the wrong hands. It includes deadly hardware up to and including nuclear weapons. In the late 1990s, it also came to include satellite components, regardless of their end use. But because the State Department export-licensing bureaucracy proved more difficult to manage than the Commerce Department counterpart, the U.S. satellite industry found itself hobbled at the very time it faced growing competition abroad.
The reasons are complex, but the upshot is the U.S. share of worldwide satellite sales fell to 30% in 2008 from 63% in 1999. Ever since the export control of satellites and components shifted to ITAR as the tumble began, industry has lobbied long and hard for some relief.
It is coming, but ever so slowly (see page 52). President Barack Obama ordered changes in all munitions-export procedures in 2009, and signed legislation in January that gave him explicit authority to remove satellite components from the munitions list. But modified regulations will not be ready until next year, and after that, it will be another 180 days before the new regulations take effect.
An objective of the satellite-export crackdown was to hobble China’s efforts to become a space-faring nation. U.S. satellite technology is so ubiquitous that, the theory went, blocking its export to China effectively denied that country the technology and financial incentives it needed to build advanced launchers and spacecraft.
It has not worked out that way. Even without open access to U.S. technology and customers, China continues to advance steadily in civilian and, yes, military space. It has sent 10 military pilots into orbit for increasingly complex maneuvers aimed at building a small space station in 2020. It is sending a robotic lander to the Moon soon. It has also added dramatically to the cloud of potentially deadly space debris surrounding Earth with its ill-advised anti-satellite weapon test in January 2007 (see p. 50).
You need look no farther than the International Space Station to see that there is another way. Basically, the ISS would not exist had the Soviet Union and U.S. not engaged in joint civil-space projects that predated even the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, at the height of the Cold War. Time and again, the so-called soft power of space cooperation has outweighed the disadvantages that accompany the suspicion and mistrust of China that has damaged the U.S. satellite industry.