PONTE VEDRA, Fla. — French-Italian satellite builder Thales Alenia Space on Aug. 9 said that for the last 12 years its U.S. suppliers had mislabeled their components as “commercial” or “dual use” when in fact they were subject to defense-export controls known as ITAR.

In a statement, Cannes, France-based Thales Alenia Space appears to abandon a position it has taken for years, that the U.S. State Department has played mix-and-match with its satellite-export rules by adding banal components to the Munitions List list in an attempt to stop the satellite builder from selling satellites to China. Items on the Munitions List, a registry of militarily sensitive technology, are subject to strict International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) export rules.

European Space Agency officials have in recent months echoed the company’s claim, saying the U.S. State Department is not so much interested in protecting sensitive U.S. satellite technologies as it is in blocking satellite exports to China.

Thales Alenia Space officials had said earlier this year that they had abandoned their “ITAR-free” satellite product line — meaning devoid of Munitions List components — under which the company had sold satellites and satellite electronic payloads to China, because of State Department attempts to corral every satellite nut and bolt into the ITAR sphere. 

Congress in 1999 mandated that all U.S. satellites and components be classified as weaponry subject to U.S. State Department export approval. Before then, most commercial satellite technology had been regulated by the U.S. Commerce Department and classified as commercial or dual-use items.

The Thales Alenia Space statement represents an about-face for the company, which is now saying its U.S. suppliers systematically mislabeled their hardware since 2000.

Thales Alenia Space said it and the State Department, which has been investigating the company’s “ITAR-free” product line for several years for suspected ITAR violations, have agreed that the company’s export controls have been sufficient, and that the fault lies not at the prime contractor but with its U.S. suppliers.

The statement makes no mention of any expansion of the Munitions List that would extend its reach beyond what it was in the past. Instead, it suggests that satellite exports under the “ITAR-free” label were never really in conformance with U.S. law. 

The statement does not mention any consequences for Thales Alenia Space’s U.S. suppliers, nor any effects of the agreement on satellites sold as ITAR-free since 2000 and now operating in orbit.

Following is the full text of the Thales Alenia Space statement:

“Thales Alenia Space confirmed today that it is no longer using the term ‘unrestricted’ to describe certain variants of its Spacebus 4000 satellite. In consultation with the U.S. Department of State, Thales Alenia Space learned that beginning around the year 2000, a number of U.S. space component manufacturers and exporters had misclassified hardware as if it were commercial or dual-use under the Export Administration Regulations and controlled for export by the U.S. Department of Commerce. These hardware items were in fact defense articles controlled for export by the Department of State under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

“Thales Alenia Space cooperated with the Department of State during its review of the matter. The Department concluded that any ITAR violations were on the part of U.S. manufacturers and exporters, not Thales Alenia Space. The Department further concluded that Thales Alenia Space has in place an effective ITAR compliance program whereby U.S. manufacturers and exporters must certify the export jurisdiction of a particular hardware item. Thales Alenia Space also has proper procedures in place to identify and manage control of hardware within Thales Alenia Space facilities.”


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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.