The U.S. House of Representatives is set to consider an amendment to the 2013 defense authorization bill that would ease export restrictions on commercial satellites.
The amendment would allow commercial satellites and related components to be transferred from the U.S. Munitions List (USML), overseen by the State Department, back to the dual-use Commerce Control List (CCL), making their export to allies and partners easier.
The 1999 National Defense Authorization Act transferred export-licensing jurisdiction over commercial satellites and related components to the State Department, making them the only items on the USML for which licensing jurisdiction is explicitly mandated by law.
The move was instigated by concerns on Capitol Hill that China had obtained secret technology through a commercial deal to launch U.S. commercial satellites into space using Chinese rockets.
The new amendment would prohibit any such exports to China, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Sudan or Cuba.
The amendment has support from both sides of the political aisle. It is being offered by Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who serves as ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. It is being co-sponsored by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., as well as the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif.
The amendment incorporates the measures first put forward last November in legislation sponsored by Berman, titled the “Safeguarding United States Satellite Leadership and Security Act.”
“Treating commercial satellites and components as if they were lethal weapons has gravely harmed American space manufacturers — a view borne out by numerous studies, industry assessments, and the Administration’s own recent 1248 report to Congress,” Berman said in a statement.
While the language that bans sales to China will likely ease the concerns of some lawmakers, the prohibition could continue to pose obstacles to U.S. companies trying to be more competitive in the global market.
If a U.S. company is trying to sell a part to a unique European satellite for which the purchaser or launcher is known, the amendment, if it becomes law, would make life easier, said Joel Johnson, executive director-international for the Teal Group, a market research firm based in Fairfax, Va.
However, if the Europeans are buying components in bulk for a common bus or payload, for which all future purchasers and launchers are not known, then they will still want U.S. component-free satellites, Johnson said.
Today, such technology is called ITAR-free, named after the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, the set of regulations that govern the import and export of items on the USML.
“We’ll go from ITAR-free to CCL-free,” Johnson said. The amendment is “a step in the right direction, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves that this solves the ITAR-free problem. If the amendment passes as is, industry will be back in the next Congress for a final fix.”
Lawmakers are scheduled to vote on the amendment May 17, as the House debates the defense authorization bill for 2013.