What was once thought impossible has happened. A satellite orbiting the Earth contains absolutely no critical parts made in the USA.
More than the end of the space shuttle program, this development is the biggest warning sign since Sputnik that America is losing its place in space. How has this happened?
During the Cold War, Congress enacted the International Traffic in Arms Regulations Act to keep companies from inadvertently sharing sensitive military technologies with our enemies. These legislative prohibitions served well for decades, but, unfortunately, ITAR was no iron dome.
In the 1990s, two U.S. companies provided China with missile-launch vehicle data that violated ITAR restrictions. The companies had a vested interest in helping Beijing improve the reliability of its rockets. They hoped to use the Chinese as cheap source for putting U.S. satellites in space.
The Chinese, of course, had more than a commercial interest in the data. The same information could be used to improve the performance of a nuclear-ballistic missile fleet.
The violations broke existing laws and had nothing to do with satellite technologies. But Congress enacted sweeping new rules that served only to punish American companies that were playing by the rules.
The new restrictions on the sale of U.S. satellite technologies were so invasive that American firms lost customers right and left. The difficulty in “buying American” acted as an incentive for others to develop their own home-grown satellite industries.
Enter the French-based Thales Alenia Space, which now actively markets an “ITAR-free” satellite product. And what is the company’s No. 1 sales target? Anyone who wants to ship their satellites to China for launch. In one stroke, Congress had managed to boost both our foreign satellite manufacturing competitors and China’s commercial space industry.
The regulations have done more harm than just making U.S. companies less competitive. The trickle-down effect has hamstrung American research and development as well.
Many of our universities, for example, have simply stopped teaching courses related to satellite technologies out of fear that a professor might inadvertently violate ITAR.
Meanwhile, both the U.S. space industry and our space infrastructure are flagging. When the Aerospace Industry Association surveyed its members, it found that “lack of competition” was impeding development of defense systems able to detect and track enemy ballistic missiles.
The industry report added, “Industrial base and critical skills that have been preserved and improved through U.S. government strategic and sustained acquisition methodology will be lost.”
Military systems are not the only ones in jeopardy. A 2005 National Research Council report warned that the network of U.S. satellites that monitor the Earth’s environmental conditions was “at risk of collapse.”
At a time when our economy and national defenses need a boost, it is past time to shed irrational regulations. Every single nut, bolt and wire in a satellite simply cannot be a national security concern — particularly when other countries are handing over satellite technology to China like free samples.
To its credit, the administration has shown a serious interest in export-control reform and revamping ITAR in a manner that protects U.S. secrets while making U.S. exports more competitive. Importantly, the proposal would not relax controls on exports to China. Congress should become a proactive partner in this process
The U.S. is on the verge of ceasing to be a space superpower. And most of the damage that has brought us to this point has been self-inflicted, by our own excessive laws and
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.