Editorial: Is Anyone Paying Attention

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It should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the U.S. satellite export drama over the past several years that European governments have begun investing in industrial capacities that will reduce Europe’s traditional reliance on American companies for certain satellite components.

It is just the latest manifestation of an ill-considered policy that has helped erode the U.S. share of the international satellite market, put a damper on trans-Atlantic space cooperation and done little if anything to serve its stated purpose — protecting U.S. national security.

These destructive impacts will continue unabated unless official Washington finally takes its head out of the sand and implements meaningful export reform.

European space companies have been headed down the path of industrial independence ever since the politically fueled U.S. crackdown on satellite exports was launched in 1998 amid allegations that China was benefiting militarily from launching American-made spacecraft. All along the way, there have been clear warnings from across the Atlantic about the potential consequences of the U.S. government’s stubborn refusal to meet its European allies half way on this issue, to no avail.

Alcatel Space of Paris, frustrated that having U.S. components on its satellites made it beholden to the whims of the U.S. government – and the delays that it caused – now has a policy of using parts from other sources. Alcatel’s chief European rival, EADS Astrium, has no such policy, but easily could gravitate away from U.S. suppliers as low-cost alternatives from Europe, Russia and Japan become available.

With U.S. Defense Department spending on satellites still going strong, it is tempting to minimize the impact of the European Component Initiative, a two-year industrial investment program launched in 2004. After all, many U.S. satellite makers and subcontractors are enjoying healthy revenues in spite of a commercial market that generated just 12 telecommunications satellite orders last year.

That attitude is dangerously shortsighted.

Markets change. The collapse of the commercial satellite market in the late 1990s and early 2000s sent companies that had overextended themselves in that sector scrambling desperately for the government safety net. Some of those businesses might not exist today — at least in their current form — if not for the surge in space spending driven largely by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s push for military transformation.

But there are signs that spending spree is coming to an end, despite a 2006 Pentagon budget request that seeks an 18 percent increase for unclassified military space programs. Included in that request are big-ticket military programs like the Space Radar and Transformational Satellite communications system. But given the persistent congressional opposition to those two programs, any executive willing to bet a company’s future on these projects belongs at a Las Vegas craps table — with his own money.

While another commercial satellite boom comparable to that of the mid- to late 1990s is highly unlikely, the sector is coming back steadily, if slowly. Five years from now U.S. component suppliers could well find themselves facing a flat or declining defense market and a commercial sector that, healthy or not, has limited interest in their wares.

Perhaps even more troubling for the long haul is the negative impact U.S. export restrictions could have on international cooperation in space exploration. European officials, still basking in the triumph of the Huygens probe’s landing on Saturn’s moon Titan, say such cooperation — Huygens traveled to the ringed planet as part of the NASA-led Cassini mission — would not have been possible under the current U.S. export regime.

What does that say for the prospects of U.S. President George W. Bush’s ambitious plan to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2020 and eventually on to Mars? Those who truly believe the United States has the financial wherewithal to go it alone in exploring the solar system are kidding themselves. Even if the country could, it should not, given the scale of the undertaking; not to mention its implications for all humankind.

Finally, there is China, whose growing economic and military might is the source of the fear that triggered the export crackdown in the first place. China remains the world’s largest telecommunications market in terms of potential, yet it is off limits to U.S. satellite and satellite-component makers. That means European space companies — at least those who have weaned themselves from U.S. components — have this market largely to themselves. This further increases the incentives among those still dependent on U.S. components to follow suit.

In the grand scheme of things, space commerce as an issue pales next to Sino-U.S. relations in the 21st century. But all available evidence suggests that depriving China of U.S. communications satellites and components has done more harm than good, even when considered strictly within the scope of that relationship. These are not missiles or spy satellites, after all.

The current U.S. satellite export control regime took less than a year to forge in the heat of Washington partisanship and concern bordering on hysteria about China’s growing military strength. U.S. lawmakers quickly took notice when the press reported allegations — many of them based on flimsy or outright false assumptions — that China was using U.S. satellite technology to enhance its military capabilities.

It has been more than six years since then, giving many of these same lawmakers , as well as the White House, plenty of time to consider the growing body of unmistakable evidence of the regime’s negative effects. Unfortunately, however, nobody seems to be paying attention these days.