Satellite export controls loom over national security, economy

Momentum for satellite export reform stalled by complex and technical nature of the issue.

The Defense Department, after a two-year delay, released a report April 18 urging Congress to lift restrictions on satellite exports, and some experts – as well as the so-called 1248 report – say failure to do so could pose a threat to national security.

Currently satellites and related equipment are governed under the U.S. Munitions List, but the report advises control of satellites be transferred to the Commerce Department and that decision-making be handed over to the White House.

One of the goals of the report was to determine if there would be security risks caused by the transfer of satellites – as well as a wealth of other types of equipment and goods – off the munitions list, which is governed by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

“Some of those are nuts and bolts, but it is still literally hundreds of thousands of items that we think are already available globally and are not going to hurt our national security,” Gregory Schulte, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said during an April 18 conference call with reporters.

With the report finally released, it’s now up to Capitol Hill lawmakers to get the ball rolling on meaningful action. However, some familiar with satellite export control issues aren’t optimistic for true change.

“This is one small step for export control reform, but if Congress is going to take a giant leap, that remains to be seen,” said Mike Gold, director of D.C. operations and business growth at Bigelow Aerospace. “It’s a matter of priority, and that’s a problem with the legislative process. But the rules desperately need updating for today’s technical and geopolitical reality.”

At the Satellite2012 conference in Washington in March, David Fite, senior professional staff member at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pointed out that even with the report’s imminent release, the lengthy courses of action on Capitol Hill could prove to be too big of a hurdle for any real action.

“The window for real legislative action is not very big,” Fite said. “There are going to be hearings, there will have to be a markup in the Senate, and it will need time to get through the floor and conference.”

According to Gold, momentum for satellite export reform is stalled by the complex and technical nature of the issue, as well as the fact that it’s not high-profile like Afghanistan or health care – an even bigger challenge in an election year.

“We’re never going to see an Occupy ITAR,” Gold said.

Adding more pressure to the situation is the economic impact. The controls on satellite exports have led to problems such as the U.S. relying heavily on other countries for satellite equipment and other related needs, and have hurt industry stateside as well, Gold said.

“This is a national security issue – we are less safe because of the over-breadth of ITAR,” he said. “We want a robust and healthy commercial satellite market so we don’t have to go overseas.”

Gold added that reviving the U.S. satellite industry could result in thousands of jobs and significant effects on the economy.