Obama ITAR Reform Could Move Satellites Back to Commerce

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WASHINGTON — As it launches a sweeping review of U.S. space policy, the administration of President Barack Obama has given indications that it is open to removing commercial telecommunications satellites from the U.S. Munitions List (USML), a shift that could make American satellite companies more competitive in the global market.

Ellen Tauscher, who was confirmed June 25 as U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said in June that reform of the U.S. export control regime, known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), is on the administration’s agenda.

“We are going to review our export control policies,” the former Democratic congresswoman from California said during her June 9 confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Later, in a written response to questions asked by committee ranking member Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Tauscher said she “supports export control reform in general and would consider supporting the transfer of commercial communications satellites to the Department of Commerce provided that the transfer is consistent with our foreign policy and national security objectives.”

Commercial communications satellites were placed on the USML, a registry of sensitive technologies regulated by the U.S. State Department, by a U.S. law that went into effect in 1999. Since then, U.S. space hardware makers have complained about lost market opportunities, and even many in the U.S. military establishment have said the move has harmed national security by undermining the American defense industrial base.

In June the House passed legislation in the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for 2010 and 2011 that would give the Obama administration authority to remove commercial satellites from the USML. The bill now awaits consideration by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“The administration supports efforts to determine the appropriate jurisdiction of satellites and their parts and components, and looks forward to working with Congress on this issue,” David McKeeby, spokesman for the State Department Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, said in a July 1 e-mailed statement to Space News.

During her confirmation hearing, Tauscher spoke broadly of balancing U.S. national security interests with helping American companies compete in a global marketplace marked by rapid technological innovation.

“I believe we have to understand that the life cycle of technology these days can be as short as 18 months,” she said. “You could actually have an item that is, you know, release 1.0, and right following it in a few months, is release 2.0.”

However, Tauscher cautioned that the process of determining which technologies should be removed from the USML would be a complicated one.

“What is the review process, once something is no longer a necessity to protect, to get it off the list, so that we can put the thing on that needs to be protected?” she said. “I think in the beginning, we realized that we had to protect X number of things. And then it became X-plus, and then X-plus, and then XX-plus. And you cannot protect everything for its life cycle. You can only protect it while it is important for national security.”

During the hearing, Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) warned that U.S. national security ultimately could be compromised if U.S. regulations prevent American aerospace companies from competing in the international market.

“A lot of this technology growth is international in some respects,” he said. “And if companies are prohibited from being engaged internationally, their viability is affected.”

Tauscher agreed that while it is important to favor national security interests, “we also need to create good-paying American jobs and have America be at the forefront of technology. And it’s that sweet spot that we have to find, to make sure that we are absolutely protecting the national security items, but at the same time, we’re cognizant that there’s a world market for things that can be taken off the list, and that we have to then protect the new things that need to be protected.”

In her written response to Lugar, Tauscher noted the State Department’s export licensing process is less cumbersome today than in recent years.

“In the past, U.S. industry had some valid concerns regarding their competitiveness in a global market,” Tauscher wrote. “In 2006, the average space-related export authorization took 76 days from submission to the Department of State to issuance of the authorization approval. In 2008, such approvals were averaging 23 days.”

In his written questions, Lugar asked Tauscher if China‘s space program poses a threat to U.S. national security. Tauscher noted that China‘s January 2007 successful test of a ground-launched anti-satellite missile demonstrated the country’s ability to attack satellites in low Earth orbit.

“This system is one component of a multidimensional program to limit and prevent the use of space-based assets by political adversaries during time of crisis or conflict,” Tauscher said. “We believe that China should respond to international calls for a full explanation of China’s intentions, including how China’s development of anti-satellite weapons squares with its claims to be opposed to the militarization of space.”