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It’s Time to Reevaluate Export Controls on Commercial Spacecraft

With foreign space industries developing, it is only a matter of time before they begin to market their own crewed spacecraft capabilities.

As America’s commercial space sector blossoms, opportunities abound for private industry to secure a controlling lead in the growing and globalizing space market. However, the US government, wary of the “dual-use” civil-military nature of space systems, restricts the export of many space technologies through tightly-controlled export lists. As the commercialization of outer space continues, the way the government perceives and controls space technology will need to shift.

With advanced space systems becoming more common in the commercial and international arenas, a reevaluation of space technology export controls is increasingly warranted. These lists should be gradually reformed to lift the constraints on export and overseas use of emerging systems such as commercial crewed spacecraft — with incorporation of careful exceptions that maintain governance over the proliferation of overtly weapon-related technologies.

Stringent export controls is a major point of contention for America’s commercial space sector. Restrictions on the sale and export of space technology enables emerging foreign competitors to develop, sell and capture a significant share of the space system market without American competition. The United States’ industrial competitiveness is weakened as a result, with only marginal national security or foreign policy benefit gained. The government has recognized this before; for example, it gradually loosened control over the export of satellite technologies after years of petition by the industry, though discussions and concerns remain.

CREWED SPACECRAFT

This issue will soon arise from an important emerging commercial space capability: crewed spacecraft that can transport humans in space. Several companies, such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, are steadily working toward putting these vehicles in service in the near future with business models that anticipate access to the international market. While crewed commercial spacecraft are still in the development stage, portions of the US export control regime already on the books will make it prohibitively difficult for companies to sell them or offer their services abroad, effectively limiting these vehicles to the domestic market in America.

The US is a party to the voluntary Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which seeks to prevent the proliferation of technologies capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction. To adhere to this regime, the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) — a strict export control regime with a strong “presumption of denial” against applications to sell restricted technology — includes performance-based controls on propulsion technologies like rocket engines.

The MTCR and ITAR restrict exports on systems that can send a payload of at least 1,000lb to a distance of at least 186 miles, which includes ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles. However, with similar propulsion capabilities used for maneuvering in space, crewed commercial spacecraft fall within these parameters — even though they are not weapon delivery platforms. While the MTCR has helped make the world safer, American manufacturers of these crewed spacecraft can make a credible case that ITAR restrictions will block them from exporting benign systems to many nations, even those friendly to the US.

Legitimate questions exist about a crewed spacecraft’s military potential, as they could conceivably be used to tamper with other satellites in orbit. Yet this is a concern inherent with all spacecraft. As can be expected, export regulators see emerging high technologies, especially in a unique and important domain such as space, through the prism of national security and threat. However, the current export control system relies on Cold War-era protection methods and assumes an economic environment based on that previous era.

Facing the reality of the new economic environment for space systems, strict export prohibitions that allows foreign manufacturers, who may not share America’s security concerns or values, to dominate is detrimental to both US economic power and national security. Instead, responsibly controlling and monitoring the foreign sale and operation of emerging commercial capabilities such as crewed spacecraft would enable the US to establish and set the norms of their use.

There are ways to do this. Regulators should engage in close dialogue with industry and their potential clients about the capabilities of these vehicles and their intended use, laying out strict expectations if exports are to be permitted. The MTCR can be reinterpreted to allow exceptions on in-space use of certain propulsion capabilities for particular crewed vehicles, while still banning the export of more overtly weapon-related, non-crewed rockets. And, as occurs with many weapons systems, permits and exceptions could be made for export to users in friendly countries that have demonstrated adherence to standards of safe conduct in space.

Dialogue and consideration need to start now. With these vehicles already in development, constraining export control restrictions threaten to throttle the space sector’s economic potential in the short term. And with foreign space industries developing, it is only a matter of time before they begin to market their own crewed spacecraft capabilities. It would be in nobody’s interest for American regulators and industry to once again find themselves in contention while commercial crews fly overhead on foreign-built spacecraft.

*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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