The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Boeing 702
Left out in the development of various national space policies is one that governs the relationship between the government and communications satellite manufacturers and operators. (credit: Boeing)

Focusing the space mafia on satellites

In June of 2002, President Bush directed the Space Policy Coordination Committee (PCC) to complete a National Space Policy Review of all White House directives related to space. The PCC is led by the National Security Council in conjunction with the Office of Science and Technology Policy with representatives from various other federal agencies, and is sometimes referred to jokingly as the “space mafia”. For the most part, the PCC has reinforced the policies made by previous White House administrations with the exception of some incremental improvements.

The first policy to be reviewed and released was on remote sensing in 2003. The policy stated that federal agencies were to make use of commercial sources whenever possible. Then there was an abundance of policies released in 2004. The first was the President’s ambitious Vision for Space Exploration that gave a clear direction for NASA, written in response to the shuttle tragedy in 2003. The Pointing, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) policy defined who was responsible for paying for the Global Positioning System and sought to ensure interoperability with foreign PNT systems. This policy was followed by the Space Transportation policy that, among other things, brought the phrase Operationally Responsive Space to our vocabulary.

One thing that is notable in reviewing all of the official space policies is that none of them focus on the major issues surrounding the largest sector in the space arena, satellites.

Now, two years later, the PCC has wrapped up their review and released the National Space Policy (NSP). This new policy largely reinforces the existing policy but also touches on defending US assets in space and attempts to address problems that have plagued the acquisition process. It has a subtle shift away from Clinton’s policies towards international cooperation and it has a strong emphasis on national security. This is not surprising given the focus of our nation’s current resources in fighting two wars.

One thing that is notable in reviewing all of the official space policies is that none of them focus on the major issues surrounding the largest sector in the space arena, satellites. This is not surprising, as no previous administration created one and the direction of the PCC was to perform a rolling review of existing space policies. Now that the space mafia’s current mission is accomplished, perhaps they can focus on defining the official position on this very important economic sector during the final two years that they are in power. At the October 2006 Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) meeting, David Cavossa of the Satellite Industry Association (SIA) promoted the idea of a commercial satellite communications (COMSATCOM) policy. He put forth several bullets on why this is needed. These ideas are a wish-list of reforms that many space lobbyists are currently fighting for. To understand the need for this separate policy, I’d like to reiterate and expand some of the points made by Cavossa and add in a few of my own to understand the holes in the existing policies.

The first area of concern is within national security. The NSP has several important provisions relating to satellites. An important one is in the principles outlining the US right to respond to those who are interfering with space capabilities and take appropriate actions in defending those capabilities that are in the national interests. What is missing here is a broader statement needed by the industry to defend those capabilities that are not within national security but are vital to US commercial interests. There have been numerous cases in which a transponder on a satellite has been jammed from the ground. There is also the ability currently for rivals to disrupt competitors through either radio interference or through more malign means. A clear definition is needed to define how far the US will go to protect commercial companies’ property in space. Cavossa also hit on this theme with his bullet that the policy needs to “preserve and protect satellite spectrum from harmful interference”. To quote what General Howell M. Estes III said in 1998, “it is not the future of military space that is critical to the United States—it is the continued commercial development of space that will continue to provide continued strength for our great country in the decades ahead. Military space, while important, will follow.”

The NSP also directs the US to use commercial space capabilities and services to the “maximum extent possible.” In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the DoD used about 60 megabits per second (Mbps) per 5,000 troops, of which 80% of the traffic went over commercial satellites . The major problem here is that they had to do this with no long-term contracts and had to purchase much of this bandwidth on the spot market. This caused massive amounts of disruption as many commercial operators had already locked long-term contracts with private companies like CNN and private contractors. In some cases, US companies had to renege on these lucrative long-term contracts to provide short-term bandwidth to the military. As Cavossa put it, the DoD needs to take “maximum advantage of the flexibility of current procurements laws which allow multiyear procurement and the aggregation of government demand to build long-term stable relationships with the commercial industry”. Doing so would allow commercial companies to plan their acquisitions and business plans accordingly and thus better serve both national and commercial markets.

Should the White House try to tackle this policy given that they only have two more years in the White House and now face a Congress controlled by the Democratic Party? I firmly believe that they should.

The NSP does mention the regulatory environment in some detail but does not address the current problems in export control. It directs a timely response for the Department of Commerce, Transportation, and the Chairman of the FCC, but makes no mention of the State Department. Since 1999, the State Department has been in charge of regulating the export of commercial satellites and all related technologies. The full history of this change can be read in a previous article here (see “A short history of export control policy”, The Space Review, January 9, 2006), while its detrimental effect on the industry was outlined in another essay (see “The effects of export control on the space industry”, The Space Review, January 16, 2006), The backlog for approving these exports has continued to grow and the wait times for obtaining a license are worse than they were under the Commerce Department. This issue is at the top of almost all involved in the US space arena. Various lobbying groups are attempting to push legislation ranging from drastic to incremental improvements but I believe that there at least two major steps that can be taken to fix this issue in the near-term.

The first would be to direct the State Department to increase its workforce in the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC). Currently the DDTC has a workforce of about 50 people, including support personnel, in the licensing department. These personnel are responsible for approving over 3,500 space licenses per year. Added to this is the fact that for many years after the transfer of space to the DDTC, the DoD did not supply the required eight officers necessary to help approve licenses . The DDTC should have emergency staffing assigned to it until it is able to clear the existing backlog and then be able to staff appropriately to keep up with future demand.

The second major step that is needed is for a review to be held to identify which components truly need to be controlled as munitions and which can fall under the dual-use regulations held by the Commerce Department. There are numerous components within a spacecraft that are either created outside the United States or are easily capable of being so. By limiting the list of components that fall under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), the process itself will become smoother and US suppliers will be better able to compete in an increasingly competitive international market.

The list of issues I have presented here is by no means complete. Cavossa included issues such as maintaining programs like Transformational Communication Architecture and Operational Responsive Space, relying more on commercial satellite systems for unclassified communications, and strengthening the space workforce. There are other issues I also feel could be addressed such as the growth of the small satellite manufacturing sector, a directive to civil space to purchase scientific data from commercial providers should they demonstrate the capability to provide, and still more that would fall under the classified section of the policy.

Should the White House try to tackle this policy given that they only have two more years in the White House and now face a Congress controlled by the Democratic Party? I firmly believe that they should. The next administration could easily override any policy put forth by the current administration but, as space is not a hot topic right now, I believe that they would not get around to it for several years, and then would do the same thing that Bush has done, which is to only update the existing space policies rather than focus on new ones. The current space mafia has had six years to build a strong relationship amongst themselves, and creating such a new policy would be far easier now than for a new administration to tackle this. These issues are complex and it is imperative the White House provide the leadership necessary to help direct the satellite industry before it loses its competitive edge.