WASHINGTON — The loosening of U.S. satellite export restrictions that took effect last Nov. 10 has led to “a huge reduction” in the number of license requests because of the number of exports that do not require detailed licensing review, U.S. State, Commerce and Defense department officials said March 17 at the Satellite 2015 conference.

“We’re not getting the same number of calls since Nov. 10,” said Robert J. Monjay, a foreign affairs officer at the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls. “We do think we have got a solid regulatory regime now in place.”

“The self-imposed trade embargo on U.S. satellites has basically been lifted.”

The relaxation removed certain categories of satellite components from the U.S. Munitions List, meaning they were no longer restricted under the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) regime that classed satellites as weapons.

How much effect ITAR had on U.S. commercial satellite exports is a subject of debate. Some industry officials say it crippled their ability to compete with European satellite builders. Others say companies like Loral and Orbital ATK of the United States had thriving satellite export businesses through the ITAR era starting in 1999.

Some satellite component builders have said the prime contractors had the financial muscle to maintain legal and regulatory teams to surmount the ITAR obstacles. The Nov. 10 reform should make it easier for them.

“The self-imposed trade embargo on U.S. satellites has basically been lifted,” said Kevin Wolf, assistant secretary at the Commerce Department’s Export Administration Bureau of Industry and Security. “There has been a radical reduction to the regulatory burden.”

Wolf said the mere fact of announcing the relaxation should help U.S. companies’ export efforts by changing the ITAR climate overseas.

The new regime still has its quirks. For example, the European Space Agency – composed mainly of NATO member nations – was obliged to secure with the U.S. Jet Propulsion Laboratory a Technology Assistance Agreement to discuss the performance of deployable mesh antennas built by U.S. companies.


ESA wants to purchase an antenna for its Biomass Earth science mission. The agreement was necessary to enable ESA and JPL to converse freely about the technology.

Representatives of Exelis and Lockheed Martin said the ITAR reforms are welcomed but need to go further as they relate to Earth observation satellites.

Michael Conschafter, senior strategic accounts manager for geospatial systems at Exelis Inc., said the current regulations, even after the Nov. 10 reforms, make it difficult for U.S. companies to sell optical sensors for Earth observation satellites for overseas customers.

A DigitalGlobe 30-centimeter natural color image of San Diego. Credit: DigitalGlobe
A DigitalGlobe 30-centimeter natural color image of San Diego. Credit: DigitalGlobe

The irony is that it is the United States – not Europe, Israel, South Korea or other nations with commercial satellite-imaging technologies – that has released high-resolution imagery on the market through DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colorado. DigitalGlobe has recently begun commercializing imagery with a 30-centimeter ground resolution – far sharper than anything offered anywhere else in the world.

But while DigitalGlobe dominates the high-resolution end of the global market, U.S. satellite builders have been all but absent from what has become a thriving market. Here European companies, particularly Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space, have sold 70-centimeter-resolution satellites to several nations.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.