WASHINGTON — Export licensing jurisdiction for most U.S. commercial communications satellites and related components could be transferred to the U.S. Department of Commerce without posing much risk to national security, according to an interim report prepared by the U.S. Defense and State departments.
Currently all U.S. satellites and related components reside on the U.S. Munitions List (USML), a register of militarily sensitive items whose exports are tightly controlled by the State Department. The Commerce Department licenses items on the Commerce Control List (CCL), which contains dual-use items that are less sensitive from a national security perspective.
“Based on the interim analysis, the risk associated with moving commercial [communications satellites] from the USML is manageable from a national security perspective, with a few narrowly defined exceptions,” states the interim report, “Risk Assessment of United States Export Control Policy,” which was delivered May 6 to key committees on Capitol Hill. “Therefore, at this time, with certain exceptions, conditions, and limitations, commercial [communications satellites], related components (including those components in common with military and civil government satellites), and information necessary for integration and launch of these satellites by foreign launch service providers, could be removed from the USML without posing an unacceptable security risk.”
The analysis goes on to say that if the president were given authority to remove satellite-related components from the USML, such items could be transferred to the CCL “under properly defined licensing and control conditions, such as interagency consensus on how these items are controlled, and the implementation of Special Export Controls (SECs) to mitigate potential risks to U.S. national security for export licenses issued by the [Commerce Department].”
The report also recommends: Re-establishing a process to facilitate periodic reviews to identify space technologies that could be transferred from State to Commerce department control; keeping navigation satellites, multi-mission satellites, remote sensing satellites, scientific research and experimental satellites, and unique subsystems and components on the USML; and giving the president authority and flexibility to determine the export licensing jurisdiction of satellites and related components, currently required by law to be on the USML.
However, the report suggests the interim findings could change pending the outcome of an executive-branch review of the U.S. export licensing process that President Barack Obama initiated in August 2009. It says some elements of commercial communications satellites are critical to U.S. national security and should remain on the USML pending completion of the presidential review. These include: satellite design methodology and manufacturing know-how; satellite apogee engines; radiation-hardened microelectronics; and some satellite thruster propellants.
The U.S. Congress placed commercial satellites on the USML in the late 1990s following allegations that China was benefiting militarily from launches of U.S.-built spacecraft. Before that legislation was passed as part of the Strom Thurmond National Defense Authorization Act of 1999, the Commerce Department had export licensing authority over all but the most sophisticated commercial communications satellites.
Congress directed the Defense and State departments to conduct the study whose interim results were just released, calling for a complete report to be delivered to lawmakers by April of last year. The report was to recommend candidate technologies for removal from the USML and propose safeguards and verification techniques necessary to prevent proliferation and diversion of space-related technologies.
With the president’s export control review still under way, however, the interim report provides only an “initial, conservative starting point for transferring items from the USML to the Commerce Control List.” “The Administration intends to provide a final report to Congress in the latter half of 2011,” based on the findings of the executive-branch review.