Commentary | A New Chance for U.S.-Asian Space Cooperation

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The enactment of much-needed satellite export control reforms in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is not only a welcome opportunity for the U.S. space industry to compete on a more level playing field with international competitors, it also offers a unique opportunity for U.S. commercial interests to dovetail with Washington’s strategic interests in the vitally important Asia-Pacific region.

Hopefully, the new export control regime set out in the 2013 NDAA is not just the only step on the road to comprehensive reform of how the U.S. regulates sensitive, dual-use space technologies. If properly structured and administered, it will also provide the long-sought opportunity for the U.S. space industry to compete on a more equal basis in the expanding and increasingly important Asia-Pacific space market by providing simplified and faster export procedures and administration compared with the more restrictive and complex export controls of the State Department’s Munitions List currently in place.

While still providing adequate export controls, the speed and transparency of a new system should result in U.S. procedures being more competitive with European export control regimes. But while this change provides much desired clarity and transparency in commercial and civil space export procedures, the opportunity to address broader U.S. bilateral — and possibly multilateral — cooperation in Asia-Pacific national security space should not be forgotten.

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Responding to years of discussion and the President’s Export Control Reform Initiative, the 2013 NDAA allows the president to propose removing satellites and related items from the State Department’s highly restrictive Munitions List — a compilation of sensitive, controlled militarily-useful technology and hardware — and restore them, subject to conditions to be proposed by the administration, to the Department of Commerce’s less restrictive yet still carefully controlled Control List of dual-use technologies, which is how they were successfully managed from 1996 to 1999. Such a change will not mean that all requests to export satellites and related subcomponents abroad will be automatically granted, but any reasonable Commerce Department system should make it much easier and quicker for policymakers to approve most exports when U.S. manufacturers and their customers abroad meet appropriate criteria. This is especially important when the reality today is that the technology in question is more and more widely available throughout the world; failing to recognize this harms U.S. strategic and commercial interests.

While the industrial and commercial benefits of satellite export control reforms are obvious and welcome, more broadly the timing of this policy change may also present an opportunity for U.S. commercial interests to dovetail with Washington’s strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region. In particular, U.S. satellite export control reform may provide a unique opportunity for the United States to further strengthen key close alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia and Singapore; reinforce links with traditional friends such as the Philippines and Thailand; and expand ties with countries such as Indonesia, Myanmar, Mongolia and Vietnam.

Most of these Asia-Pacific allies are established, new or aspirational space powers and seek to exploit satellite capabilities for civil as well as national security purposes. The region is already a prime commercial and civil market for American space systems, turnkey space services and even significant industrial cooperation in some areas; U.S. willingness to offer Asia-Pacific allies appropriate levels of cooperation and visibility into national security space solutions should provide additional opportunities on all sides. Also, a glance at the current web of telecommunications, Earth observation, maritime shipping and fishing, and weather satellite coverage of the Asia-Pacific region, as well as its soaring telecommunications demand, shows that international cooperation in broad area communications coverage, maritime domain awareness, primary and alternate ground stations, and remote sensing systems can and does serve a number of nations and interests.

Japan, South Korea and Australia are now developing their own space systems capable of supporting national security tasks. With the 2013 NDAA export control reforms, these nascent efforts might be further encouraged and strengthened by deeper U.S. engagement and space capacity building — which would be consistent with the 2010 U.S. National Space Policy. Once the new export control regime is established, the United States should study opportunities to deepen cooperation with these allies. For example, Japan has expressed interest in the co-development of certain space systems with the United States that could be of utility to U.S., Japanese and perhaps other countries’ security interests. Similar opportunities might be explored with South Korea, which has supported the development of an increasingly sophisticated national satellite manufacturing and launch capability. Certainly there are many technical and operational details to be mastered before meaningful cooperation can result, including compartmentalization and protection of operational and technical information, but these two advanced economies have much to contribute under the right conditions. Other countries’ interests should be considered, too, as the Japanese have engaged Vietnam to provide radar remote sensing satellites, and Thailand and Mongolia seek their own remote sensing capabilities to monitor vastly different environments, ranging from Mongolia’s plains to tropical jungle, but which of necessity will use very similar orbits and excess capacity that will be useful to several countries.

With the fulcrum of the global economy increasingly shifting towards Asia, and the myriad security challenges that trouble the region, the pursuit of the strategic attributes of space power — perspective, access, presence and extended strategic depth — by any number of Asian nations will both create economic opportunities and provide opportunities to ameliorate the potential for conflict. Space technologies not only provide national and international connectivity, but also can revolutionize land and resource use as well as urban planning. These benefits are of huge importance to resource-hungry nations with insufficient infrastructure and growing population pressures. Addressing these challenges with new, innovative space applications can create value and new economic opportunities from satellite communications, navigation and remote sensing systems. Also, new value-added services may be developed with controlled, national-level data; as the space segment hardware is already developed and proved, there may be substantial opportunity in the development of software and distribution systems, technologies for which the technical and economic barriers to entry are relatively low, and may prove attractive and viable to any number of Asian countries.

At the same time, such systems can enhance the national security of U.S. friends and allies by providing redundant and secure communications, and by supporting greater and more efficient border security and maritime domain awareness and exclusive economic zone monitoring. Dual-use remote sensing space systems also can help countries more efficiently utilize scarce naval and air assets in ensuring regional freedom of navigation and the defense of sovereign rights, such as the monitoring and patrolling of fisheries and exclusive economic zones.

Space systems contribute to national and regional security because of their unique strategic attributes of perspective, access, presence and enhanced strategic depth. Satellites in orbits ranging from 241 to 35,880 kilometers in altitude occupy the oft-cited “high ground,” providing a unique perspective from which to observe a large swathe of Earth’s surface. This broad perspective, combined with the ability of satellites to legally overfly the sovereign territory of other countries (guaranteed in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty as ratified by every Asia-Pacific nation except Cambodia), provides legal access to observation beyond national boundaries. In turn, this legal access confers a measure of presence over areas of strategic interest for the purposes of surveillance, as is the case with space-based maritime domain awareness.

This, combined with the increasing technical capabilities of small Earth observation satellites — such as the U.S. Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space satellites or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements microsatellite development program — is one of the reasons that small satellites in low Earth orbit are increasingly performing the Earth observation and reconnaissance roles heretofore performed by aircraft. The final link in this chain, affordable launch services for small satellites, is being pursued by a number of countries and commercial companies, and is another potential area of international cooperation because of the wide appeal of its utility.

The combination of perspective, access and presence provides the fourth attribute of space power — enhanced strategic depth. The ability to establish a long-term capability to see beyond national boundaries and access otherwise denied territory, or to observe quickly vast areas over these places, such as oceans, enhances strategic depth since it allows countries to literally trade space for time. This can lead to better-informed decision-making as well as more measured and improved response options to potential provocations and crises.

Not only can space systems provide improved national and regional security for U.S. friends and allies in the Asia-Pacific, they could also help the United States better manage its security commitments in an era of tremendous fiscal constraints; consequently, it is very much in the economic and strategic interests of the U.S. to help its friends and allies in the region become dependable space powers in order to better defend themselves, which in turn would strengthen regional security.

The growing realization of the importance of coordinating regional space policy can be seen in the recent introduction of national security space issues to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum and the growing dialogue on civil space issues in the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum. With or without strategic advantages accruing to the U.S. as a result of engagement, the reality of space technology today is that an increasing number of countries, including the U.K. and other European countries, Russia, China and Japan, are willing to provide their expertise in space hardware and launch services for either commercial or “soft power” political engagements to any number of aspiring spacefaring nations.

Space cooperation on dual-use space systems will demonstrate to allies that the U.S. is prepared to take relationships to a new level of trust, as the technology involved has been seen as overly guarded for years. For the United States, well-coordinated, broader engagement could result in allies or cooperative bilateral systems shouldering some of the onerous costs of providing much-needed information on the region by filling blind spots or providing redundancy. Further, active dual-use space cooperation engagement would provide a strategically and politically powerful statement of commitment from America to its allies in the region. The net result could mean a greater level of political and strategic commitment to trans-Pacific security relationships and greater trust in partnership with America in space. The time is right for this step.

Lance Gatling is president of Nexial Research Inc., an aerospace and defense consultancy based in Tokyo. John B. Sheldon is president of the Torridon Group LLC, an international space and cyberspace policy and strategy consultancy based in Washington.