Recent U.S. National Space Policy has stated that the United States needs to partner internationally in space endeavors. Are we ready for this?

For many years we have routinely classified and controlled the technology we fly in space. We clearly felt protecting our technology was a critical advantage because the lead time and development cost invested in it represented important intellectual capital. And it was — for many years.

The U.S. has been and still is the globally dominant space power, and our space capabilities provide unique asymmetrical advantages for the execution of our international interests and for our allied coalition partners. The approaches that were created to protect U.S. technology were built before globalization occurred in the space business, and were forged in the fires of the Cold War. In the past, space technologies and their innovations underwrote important economic and security advances; they also had the potential to be used for weapons systems that could be employed against the United States and its allies, or to counter unique strategic and tactical capabilities of the United States. As a result, U.S. laws and policies were developed to require exports of space articles, services and related technical data to meet stringent national security interests.

This is an era of very expensive space and aerospace programs. The U.S. economy struggles under the weight of a huge national debt. Economies throughout the world have become linked, and our space industry suffers the effects of international economic struggles as part of the world economy. We go to war now as integrated coalitions of partners and allies, far more interdependent than we were before. Our partners demand and need the data we are getting from our space systems on the same timelines. While we are still clearly the world leader in space, many near peers have risen, and many of them are coalition partners. Clearly times have changed. Space systems have become more and more expensive, economies have become stressed, and sharing the data and information gained from these systems is necessary to effectively prosecute a coalition-based war. More importantly, global access to critical inventions and innovation has increased exponentially in an increasingly connected world. Today, many nations deploy and acquire space capabilities, and possess the strong technical skills needed to support the development and use of these capabilities.

Presently, a complex and bureaucratic U.S. export-control regime governs these activities, divided among three agencies: the Commerce Department licenses export and re-export “dual use” commercial items; the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions and combats corrupt export business practices; and the State Department administers technologies and services deemed to be military items under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). These agencies operate the export control regimes today largely as they have done since their inception.

The main goal behind developing these regimes has been to limit the transfer of difference-making knowledge or capability to foreign adversaries. That certainly was an important and worthwhile goal — during the Cold War. An underlying assumption in the Cold War-based export control thinking has been the default thought that it is the U.S. doing the transfer of knowledge. Times have changed. In today’s world, that is certainly not always the case. In many instances, as we have found with such programs as the RD-180 engine and old NK-33 engines, it is the other way around. Our international partners, and even our adversaries, have equaled and in some cases leaped ahead of us in a number of space technologies. The marketplace, despite the best intentions of America-first space policymakers, has globalized.

Unfortunately, export control rules and perceptions have not evolved to respond to these new realities. So we follow antiquated rules that constrain our ability to ask questions, return components or assemblies, or adequately transfer knowledge from the technology developer to the technology user. In fact, just trying to return products for servicing or repair requires a lengthy and costly licensing process, which not only increases cost and delays schedule but often results in production interruptions.

By design and the situation in the world at the time, export control regulations have generated a system that has evolved into an incredibly broad and cumbersome construct. The exercise of controls by various agencies, with different agendas, has caused delays and driven up costs. Overlapping jurisdictions creates confusion as to where specific items fall, even to administrators in the agencies. The problem of multiple forums is made worse by long license processing times. There is significant paperwork and time involved in submitting and processing license applications.

Of course, this bureaucratic approach served as a valuable tool in the days of two superpowers, where the U.S. was trying to protect technology advantages over the Soviets. However, in the connected Information Age world of today, many nations have strong technical capabilities. Many of them are potential coalition partners and allies. These older rules and approaches merely serve to make U.S. companies less competitive internationally, in a landscape where it is less likely that U.S. government spending alone can support these companies as they seek to grow and flourish in a global marketplace.

Another factor in play is that in economically stressing times, the U.S. is ill equipped and cannot afford to fund all needed innovation by itself. While the U.S. cannot partner on everything it wants for its civil and commercial space systems, it can do more than it does today. We need to make national security systems or at least the data from these systems available to our coalition partners, and we need to take advantage of the vast international technical resources to partner on development of other new systems. This allows us to take advantage of technical capacity and spread the cost and risk across the partnership.

So with a complex world marketplace, export control regulations allow for little differentiation to the level of sophistication of the technology that is being discussed or transferred. A metal bracket or piece of composite structure demands the same licensing as if it were a flight computer. The export or repair of a flight computer based on 10- or 15-year-old technology (e.g., 486 chips) gets more oversight than an iPad. We have to learn to operate in a far more complex decision space. On one side of the equation are national security and protection of unique U.S. innovation activities. On the other side are the economy and the health and competitiveness of the U.S. aerospace industry, the ever-increasing space capabilities of the rest of the world, and the new military paradigm of operation in an international coalition environment.

In today’s reality there is a distinct advantage to partnering internationally in space — if we are integrated, the likelihood of attacking, jamming or impeding the operation of important space systems is greatly reduced. There will always be a need for security to protect our greatest technological advantages, but we must concede that we, friend and foe alike, already share technologies across wideband communication systems and launch systems to some extent. Current export control restrictions may in fact be hurting more than protecting. There has been no real value in driving other nations to build their own positioning, navigation and timing systems, rather than having them use GPS or buy GPS systems from U.S.-based companies. A lot of money has been squandered by allies developing and deploying systems that provide no more capability than if they had just depended on a secure, dependable, assured GPS.

Maybe the most critical forcing function for revamping current export control practices is the health of the U.S. aerospace industry. With the current practices we have tied one hand behind the backs of U.S. companies in the very competitive international space business. Export controls, and in particular the ITAR changes implemented in the late 1990s, have created unique challenges for U.S. space companies that hope to work with foreign suppliers to maintain quality along with cost competitiveness. Industry uses foreign suppliers not just to obtain best value products in an international economy, but also for strategic business reasons in helping make the sale to foreign buyers, who usually demand some national content. This approach is pretty standard in the aircraft business, but has not happened in the space business. (There have been examples of successes; for example, United Launch Alliance secured the Hispasat launch partially because of its work with CASA Aerospace). Additionally, when our companies compete for commercial sales to foreign entities, an increasingly common occurrence, they are hampered by some of these archaic practices. Ultimately, this complexity leaves many unsure as to what is covered and how to proceed. The threat of criminal prosecution, jail time and heavy fines exacerbates this fear. Previous efforts to change the laws have floundered amid congressional opposition stirred up by anxieties over the Chinese theft of technologies used in missile, satellite, weapons of mass destruction and other important systems.

So we need to keep in mind the following four drivers when doing business in the international marketplace:

  • We now fight wars as coalitions. Modern warfare requires that we fight at the speed of information, and to be tightly and effectively integrated, this information must be shared.
  • The U.S. and international economies are stressed, and cost sharing makes sense.
  • Space has become part of a true global economy. Other nations bring great capabilities into play, and we need to take advantage of them and foster international partnerships
  • The health of our aerospace industrial base is growing more dependent on international customers as it becomes more difficult for our government to sustain it. In an increasingly competitive global space marketplace we need to foster the competitiveness of U.S. industry, not inhibit it.

When, then, is it in our best interests to share, encourage or allow releases? We should do so when we know that the technology barriers being proposed deal only with time and money, not the ability of a third party to gain the technology through its own indigenous efforts or on the world marketplace. We should do so if sharing assists U.S. aerospace businesses, saves allies and important coalition partners precious development dollars, and promotes a stable healthy worldwide economy. We should support releases if they promote more internationally integrated military operations, where sharing of data is critical, and the sharing must be achieved at the speed of need, supporting increasingly shorter and shorter operational timelines. We certainly need a better review of each case based on the above, and involving the Defense Department and NASA labs would be a useful first step.

Of course, we should still be careful to protect our most advanced space technologies. Certainly technology that is not producible by other countries should be protected and secured. Similarly, when the technology could be countered if it were known, we should protect it through security measures. These constraints should be the exception today, not the rule.

We need to move to greater openness due to the advance of the rest of the world in space technology, the move to coalition warfare, and the integration of our economy with the global economy. We need to stop looking at sharing space technology with a Cold War perspective and an iron curtain mentality and start looking at sharing with a globalization perspective and a coalition mentality. Is this far enough, too far, or not far enough? The need to fight coalition-based wars and perform peacekeeping activities requires a flexible and responsive export control regime that fosters our ability to share technology rather than hindering it. Additionally, the speed of innovation and the rise of foreign space capabilities require us to engage with the rest of the world to remain competitive and protect our advantage in space. These developments must give the nation pause in considering our old ways of thinking.


Thomas D. Taverney has been involved in space operations and space systems development for over 43 years, as an active duty and reserve officer and within the commercial space industry. He is a former vice commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command. He wrote this essay in his personal capacity.

Retired Maj. Gen. Thomas “Tav” Taverney is chairman of the Schriever Chapter of the Air and Space Force Association and was Air Force Space Command vice commander prior to his 2006 retirement after 38 years of service.