Bandwidth usage appears to be an export control loophole.
The US restricts the export of satellite technology to China (and to other countries as well). But apparently services delivered by satellite are less rigorously controlled. An investigative piece in the Wall Street Journal describes how China has been able rent bandwidth on US satellites and apply it to communications in disputed areas. The article calls out Boeing and the Carlyle Group as two witting or unwitting enablers of the dodge, but the problem clearly extends beyond any two companies. The argument in favor of selling bandwidth has been that the trade is so lucrative that profit from it would be reinvested in ways that maintain an American technological edge. It was also assumed that the services would be used for benign, essentially civilian purposes, "like broadcasting sports." The reality has proven a bit more problematic, as the satellites have enabled military and security communications that served both international assertion and domestic repression.
Hong Kong is semi-autonomous, and is treated differently from the rest of China by US export regulations. And the satellite bandwidth passes through a Hong Kong firm, AsiaSat, which serves as a reseller and effectively a cutout for users in the rest of China, prominently including the Peoples Liberation Army. Critics of the arrangement hope there's an kill-switch built into the system, to lie there unobtrusively until the US needs it.
A military tech-sharing agreement modeled on the Five Eyes.
A report by William Greenwalt, former deputy undersecretary of defense for industrial policy, takes up a different export control problem. If it's too easy to sell satellite bandwidth to China, it seems to hard to trade innovative technology among the Five Eyes, that is, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Greenwalt proposes rule changes that would allow the US and its closest allies to share crucial military technologies with each other (Breaking Defense). It would update the National Technology and Industrial Base for an era of renewed great power competition, and it would use the Five Eyes intelligence cooperation regime as a model for a new approach to the National Technology and Industrial Base. (Four of the Five Eyes are already encompassed by existing policy and legislation surrounding the National Technology and Industrial Base. Only New Zealand is outside looking in.)
Greenwalt offers four recommendations:
- "Establish a governing body of NTIB members to address harmonization of industrial-base issues."
- "Harmonize technology-transfer laws, regulations, policies, and practices to establish an integrated defense-industrial base."
- "To the maximum extent practicable, limit socioeconomic and acquisition process barriers to cooperation."
- "NTIB industrial-base approaches should serve as a test bed for innovations in international cooperation, be applied on a case-by-case basis to other close allies, and further civil-military integration between Silicon Valley and the Department of Defense."
As interesting as the recommendations are the three problems he argues the current NTIB poses for US technological development:
"First, there is a residual US focus on Cold War technologies that have long since proliferated to US adversaries, leaving allies with the burden of compliance. Changing business practices, such as the outsourcing of logistics and maintenance activities to the private sector, have exacerbated this compliance burden. Second, export contamination—or the so-called “ITAR taint”—and the extraterritorial application of US export-control laws limit the industrial base available to US defense prorams, and has incentivized both allies and the commercial market to develop their own solutions that deliberately avoid US technology and persons. The third is the emerging possibility that other countries will incorporate the most intrusive parts of US export-control systems into their systems. As foreign technologies become increasingly important, this mirror imaging of export-control process around US standards could eventually have a dramatic impact on US operations by placing limitations on the use of foreign technology" (Leveraging the National Technology and Industrial Base to Address Great Power Competition)."
Bringing greater flexibility to satellite operations.
Air Force Space Command leaders speaking at the 35th Space Symposium discussed their plans for coming up with more flexible and cost-effective approaches to satellite communications. Congress has long been uneasy with what critics perceived as the stovepiped rigidity of the Air Force's approach to this family of technologies. A new satellite communications strategy is expected from the Air Force later this year. It's expected to feature close partnership with industry to move innovative and adaptable solutions more quickly to initial operational capability (Via Satellite).
Some of that flexibility will come from satellites designed to receive new missions while in orbit (C4ISRNET). New, readily adaptable ground stations are envisioned as an important element of the sought-after mission agility and resilience (Breaking Defense). And at the tactical level, integration of satellite communications into the Defense Department's enterprise management and control vision is seen as a must (ExecutiveBiz). The community is being called to move away from a model in which systems are designed competitively to preclude interoperation toward a more collaborative and flexible design approach (C4ISRNET).
Commercial satcom services are moving toward greater flexibility as well. This can be seen in the increasingly common practice of selling the services into the civilian aviation market on an hourly pricing model (Get Connected).
SpaceX received FCC approval to fly the satellites it intends to use for its 1500-spacecraft Starlink Internet-delivering constellation (Verge). It's an ambitious project, but the company is raising the money it needs to carry it out (Wall Street Journal).