lthough I applaud any attempt to address America’s counterproductive and irrational export control regime,
U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration’s recent directive for reform is wildly off target. I have the misfortune of being quite familiar with this issue since, second only to gravity, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (
) had the greatest potential to keep Bigelow Aerospace’s Genesis 1
spacecraft from ever leaving the ground.
The inability of our existing export control regime to distinguish between widely available commercial technologies and militarily sensitive hardware represents a fundamental flaw in the system. Unfortunately, the
administration’s directive completely fails to address this critical issue, and by doing so, the recommended cure has nothing to do with the actual disease.
Adding more bureaucrats and spending more taxpayer dollars is not a solution.
The number of civil servants
not the problem, it’s what they are spending their time on. Congress’
original intent was to control the sale of advanced communications satellites. This rudimentary goal has since been perverted to create the situation today where components that can be purchased at your local Radio Shack fall under the auspices of
ITAR and the U.
A wonderful example of the irrationality of the current regime is the “
” from our Genesis campaigns. This simple aluminum stand is composed of a circular base with several legs sticking out. If you were to turn the stand upside down it would literally be indistinguishable from a common coffee table. However, under the current export control regime, the stand was considered “
” and we were required to have two security officers guarding the stand on a 24/7 basis while at our launch base in Russia. I can only imagine the dire repercussions of the Russians gaining unauthorized access to this table technology. If sold to the Chinese or the Iranians they could subsequently serve coffee, or, in a worst case scenario, even tea on it. It took my
Washington office several
onths and two general correspondence letters to get these requirements dropped for our stand. Yet
unfortunately, there is nothing in the
president’s directive that would prevent similar problems from occurring in the future. The answer lies not in hiring more civil servants to expedite the review of coffee tables, but to stop treating metal coffee tables as ITAR in the first place.
It should come as no surprise that since the Bush
administration has failed to recognize the fundamental nature of the problem that the recommended solution is, at best, irrelevant, and, at worst will only further aggravate the problem. Throwing more money and bodies at a broken export control regime is like trying to put out a house fire by pouring whiskey on it. Superficially, fighting a fire with liquid seems like a good idea, but
in the end
the alcohol will only make an already bad situation worse.
As I’ve said many times before, it’s not that myself, Bigelow Aerospace, or anyone else in the industry is against export control. Far from it, we’re the first to recognize that there are sensitive military technologies that justifiably require enhanced scrutiny and government control. What we’re against is wasting our own time and money as well as the government’s by monitoring metal coffee tables.
By reviewing and updating the now obsolete U.S. Munitions List and instructing the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (
) to apply provisos in a judicious and common sense fashion, we can allow DDTC and the Defense Technology Security Administration (
) to focus their efforts on technologies that really do require monitoring, and stop distracting them with systems that can be purchased by anyone in the international marketplace. In other words, no additional personnel or resources would be necessary if the ITAR were limited to advanced communications satellites and related technologies, which is what Congress wanted in the first place.
The worst possible result of this directive is for the
administration to declare victory and wash its hands of the export control reform issue. This directive is just a start, and a very modest one at that, toward the ultimate goal of achieving substantive progress.
If a serious effort is not made to address the fundamental flaws of the export control regime
and we continue down our current path, I doubt that export control will be much of a problem
in the not too distant future
America will have fallen so far behind our international competition that we will no longer have any aerospace technology worth exporting.
Robert T. Bigelow is president and founder of Bigelow Aerospace.