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The Sky’s Not Falling On Satellite Exports: The Ghost Of Anti-China Paranoia Past

Posted by Joan Johnson-Freese on

The U.S. aerospace industry got an early Christmas present this week, when House and Senate conferees approved defense authorization legislation that gives the President discretion to determine export jurisdiction for satellites. The legislation next will be voted on by the full Congress, and signed by the President. That process will conclude a necessary-but-not-sufficient, long-awaited first step in reviving the health and competitiveness of an industry critical to U.S. national security, but long crippled by political shenanigans that make it difficult to believe there won’t be attempts to derail this move toward rationality.

It is sadly evocative that titles of articles on government acquisition and satellite export control reform — two different but related areas similarly bogged down in efforts that have heretofore gone nowhere — sometimes descriptively include terms from fantasy or horror movies. For example, my own 2000 article on satellite export control, “Alice in Licenseland,” referenced a satellite export licensing variation of an impossible and often-scary imaginary journey. Louis V. Victorino’s 2011 article on data rights in the acquisition process was titled “Frankenstein’s Monster.”

The stalemate in satellite export reform has been directly tied to another monster, the 1999 Cox Committee Report, which is much like Dracula, the vampire that won’t die. The report is named after the chairman of the “House Select Committee on National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People’s Republic of China,” Christopher Cox, then a Republican congressman from California who was later rewarded for his service by being named SEC Chair during the George W. Bush administration.

The Cox Report has become an urban legend. Touted when convenient as bipartisan, it is really a compilation of near-hysterical risks to US security from dual-use technology transfer and hastily-made recommendations drawn from dubious analysis and ambiguous conclusions. This single report has done more damage to the US aerospace industry — an industry critical to US national security — than any competition from abroad ever could have, with absolutely no positive benefit to national security.

Prompted by anti-China, anti-Clinton partisan factions, the Cox Report was a prelude to the politics of fear that would support what Andrew Bacevich has called the Ideology of National Security, and consequent requirement that the US should be able to respond to every potential threat anywhere, anytime, as part of what former Vice-President Dick Cheney called the “one percent doctrine.”

Obviously, the US must control the transfer of sensitive dual-use technology. But the key word there is control. In a globalized world with a globalized satellite industry, no one can stop the sale of advanced technology. Hog-tying the US satellite industry with regulations has resulted only in the creation of a vigorous global industry (and a declining US market share) but little impact on restricting sales to countries — specifically China — that the US tried in vain to isolate.

In fact, the United States has lost control of dual use technology through this approach. Dual use satellite technologies are now more widely available from vendors who impose fewer restrictions than the United States. On top of that we have suffered significant numbers of high-technology jobs lost and witnessed the declining health of an industrial sector critical to US national security.

While many recognized that the Cox Committee was counter-productive almost immediately after the committee’s recommendations were implemented, Congress has previously not had the courage to right its own wrong. There have been regular efforts made at export control reforms generally and satellite export reform specifically, but those efforts have gone nowhere.

Legislation was introduced in 2011, the Safeguarding United States Satellite Leadership and Security Act (H.R. 3288, Berman), to remove commercial satellite sales and related components from the US Munitions List and place them on the Commerce Control List (CCL). The re-elected Obama Administration has shown not just a willingness but an eagerness to return some sanity to controls. But, there has been optimism before, only to fall victim to the politics of paranoia born of the Cox Report.

Sadly, in the same 2012 House Armed Service Committee (HASC) report “Challenges to Doing Business With the Department of Defense” that cites the Berman Act, the very next sentence cites the Cox Report: “It is worth noting that the bipartisan Cox Commission… specifically recommended the regulation of commercial satellites and related components through the USML following a lengthy bipartisan review and unanimous report concluding that the People’s Republic of China had been able to obtain US technology that materially improved Chinese ballistic missile capability when that technology was controlled by the CCL.” Sigh.

The Cox Report has been debunked and discredited, first by substantive experts such as Alastair Iain Johnston, W. K.H. Panofsky, Marco De Capua, and Lewis R. Franklin. Most importantly though, “the sky is falling” predictions of threats to US national security simply have not materialized. In fact, ironically, China’s access to dual-use technology has not been abated and may in fact have grown more rapidly because of the choking US satellite export controls. Still, our politicians have been afraid or unwilling to favor rationality over fear-mongering. Those who supported this first step toward a rational satellite export policy should be applauded for moving forward now, and we should be encourage — indeed demand — that Congress continue satellite export reforms in the New Year.

It is important to remember that commercial satellites were, until the politics of fear took over, viewed as a way to spread information critical to the spread of democracy, or at least democratic principles. The authoritarian Chinese communist government, currently in an important transition, is facing significant internal stress from the Chinese populace, largely generated — or at least exacerbated — by its increased access to information. The spread of technology which can suffuse information through a society has been repeatedly shown to be an uncontrollable social force. And from the Velvet Revolution to the Arab Spring, those social forces have been demonstrated to be an equal or greater global security factor as military equipment.

Therefore it is time the masses, as personified by Congress, finally drive a stake through the heart of Dracula and make a wholehearted effort to revive the undead US commercial satellite industry. Political trepidations about China, including those not related to dual-use technology, such as human rights, and political opportunism should not override national security concerns and the (failing) health of a critical US industry. If there are those who obstruct further reform, they should be clearly identified so that voters — the only group Congress is accountable to — interested in both national security and the jobs at stake in the aerospace industry — will know where to place responsibility. Then it’s up to the electorate.

[The following disclaimer was omitted from the original version of this article; my apologies for any confusion we created. — Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., Deputy Editor, Breaking Defense.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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