For over a decade, much of the U.S. commercial space industry had been fighting to overturn export control restrictions placed on it in the late 1990s. At that time, commercial satellites and related components were moved by law to the U.S. Munitions List (USML), placing them under the more restrictive regulations of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). The U.S. share of the commercial satellite manufacturing market fell in the years after that move, although establishing a clear cause-and-effect relationship was difficult.
Late last year, years of lobbying by the U.S. commercial space industry paid off: A provision in the 2013 defense authorization bill Congress passed in December struck the late-’90s language that put satellites and related items onto the USML.
However, the bill did not move those items off the list and back onto the less-restrictive Commerce Control List administered by the Commerce Department. Instead, the law simply restored the authority to the president to determine which technologies should be on which control lists. The Obama administration already was doing a complete review of the various categories of the USML, identifying which items no longer required the protections offered by ITAR, but could not act on Category 15 — spacecraft systems and related articles — until the passage of the defense authorization bill with its export control provision.
The administration had already given a sign of what it intended to keep on the USML last year when it published the so-called Section 1248 report — named after the section of the 2010 defense authorization bill that requested it — on the national security implications of space export control reform. That report included, as an appendix, a draft revised description of Category 15, one that removed commercial communications and many remote sensing satellites, while retaining some more sensitive technologies.
This spring, administration officials said the official proposal for the revised Category 15 of the USML would closely follow that draft. “The content was agreed to a while back,” said Kevin Wolf, assistant secretary of commerce for export administration, at a May 14 meeting of the Export Control Working Group of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) in Washington.
On May 24, the administration published in the Federal Register its proposed new USML Category 15, as well as a list of those items that would move to the Commerce Control List. As expected, the proposed Category 15 list closely followed what appeared in last year’s Section 1248 report.
While the draft list takes care of the biggest export control concerns — moving commercial satellites off the list and thus outside of the purview of ITAR — there are still concerns about some of the items left on the draft list that would still be under ITAR.
This story originally appeared in the June 17 edition of the Space Review.