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New Report Urges U.S. Space Launch Policy Overhaul

PARIS— The U.S. government should permitChina to launch U.S.-built commercial satellites and force an overhaulof theU.S. Air Force's relationship with its principal launch-servicesprovider –United Launch Alliance – as part of a strategy to assure long-termaccess tocommercial satellite bandwidth, a U.S. think tank has concluded.

Ina report issued July 26, theWashington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)says theU.S. policy of guaranteeing "assured access to space," which has beeninterpreted to mean access for government-ownedspacecraft,should be extended to commercial satellites.

Thereport, "National Security and theCommercial Space Sector," stops short of offering clear policyproposalsand for the most part is a synthesis of often differing opinions fromthe U.S.Defense Department, commercial launch-service providers and commercialsatellite operators.

Butthe authors say their survey found abroad consensus that "commercialaccess tospaceis problematic."

Vitalassets in space

TheU.S. military's increasing reliance oncommercial satellite bandwidth — more than 90 percent of U.S. militarysatellite bandwidth over Iraq and Afghanistan is from commercialsatellites, bysome accounts — is well established and shows no signs of reversing.

Becauseof that, the report says, U.S.government policies should all move in the direction of ensuringmaximumavailability of commercial satellite launch capacity, which existstoday butcould be curtailed in the future.

Theworld'sbiggestcommercial satellitefleet operators and the main commercial launch service providersdisagree overwhether there is a problem in the fact that International LaunchServices (ILS)of Reston, Va., and Europe's Arianespace consortium of Evry, France,dominatethe market.

TheCSIS report includes passages that willplease neither of these two audiences. Nor will it comfort ULA, whichis ajoint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, ULA's U.S. Air Forcecustomer.

Thereport notes that all the major providersof commercial satellite bandwidth today are non-U.S. companies thatoften servea U.S. clientele, including the U.S. government. While the governmentsofLuxembourg, France and Canada — home to Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat andTelesat —have done nothing to inhibit U.S. government use of these companies'satellites, the mere fact of their being foreign, and of the U.S.government'sdependence on them, should be viewed as a risk factor, CSIS says.

"[D]ependencetranslates tovulnerability if access to these vital services can be interrupted,"thereport says.

PhillipL. Spector, Intelsat executive vicepresident and general counsel, rejected that analysis.

"Intelsathas been providing services tothe U.S. military for 40 years," Spector said in a July 27 interview."Whilewe have changed ownership, we have always been at the top a foreigncompany,while we have created a subsidiary [Intelsat General Corp.] that dealsdirectlywith the U.S. government."

Shiftinglaunch prices

Thereport picks up on arguments made byIntelsat, SES and Eutelsat, among other satellite owners, that themarketdominance of ILS and Arianespace has created a de facto duopoly thatcouldraise prices. If one of these rockets were to fail, the entire industrycouldsuffer, these satellite operators say.

AnILS official said July 27 that recentstudies have shown that commerciallaunchpriceshave actually decreased over the past 20 years and that the recent riseinprices was after a period in which commercial prices dipped to levelsthat werenot sustainable.

TheCSIS study concedes that there have beenno satellite-security concerns at ILS's Russian-run spaceport inKazakhstan, orat France's Guiana Space Center launch base, in recent years. But itsaysplacing U.S. military payloads on commercial satellites could changethat.

"Puttingsensitive military, civil orintelligence payloads on commercial satellites might increase thepotential forintrusion simply because hosted payloads are higher-value targets andrequiregreater scrutiny," the report says.

Spectorsaid Intelsat, which has been perhapsthe most active commercial satellite operator in soliciting hostedpayloadsfrom U.S. government agencies, has no concerns about security issues attheEuropean and Russian launch sites.

Commerciallaunch plans

Intelsat,SES and Telesat, joined by EchoStarof Englewood, Colo., in mid-2009 announced a coalition whose goal wasto createmore commercial launch opportunities by opening the market to China'sLongMarch vehicle and by providing incentives for ULA to make Delta and,especially, Atlas rockets available for commercial launch.

TheCSIS report appears to lean in the samedirection, saying the U.S. prohibition on launching satellites fromChinaappears to have harmed the U.S. industrial base and closed off acommercial-launch avenue while providing no compelling benefit to U.S.nationalsecurity.

Thereport details many factors that havekept Atlas and Delta rockets, whose reliability is beyond dispute,mainly outof the commercial launch business. These include U.S. Air Forcepolicies thatlock up ULA's manifests, leaving little room for commercial customerseven whenthe government satellite-delivery delays leave ULA launch pads idle formonthsat a time.

CSISquestions whether the U.S. Air Force orULA have any incentive to seek commercial-launch business given theirrelationship. For the Air Force, ULA is a captive provider of reliablerocketsfunded by the U.S.taxpayer. For ULA, the Air Force is a well-heeled customer willing topay 40percent or more than a commercial customer.

Thereport suggests that one way or another,the ULA-Air Force relationship needs to be revamped to enable theserocketsystems to compete commercially.

Thisstory was provided by SpaceNews,dedicated to covering all aspects of thespace industry.

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Peter B. de Selding

Peter B. de Selding is the co-founder and chief editor of (opens in new tab), a website dedicated to the latest space industry news and developments that launched in 2017. Prior to founding SpaceIntelReport, Peter spent 26 years as the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews, an industry publication. At SpaceNews, Peter covered the commercial satellite, launch and international space market. He continues that work at SpaceIntelReport. You can follow Peter's latest project on Twitter at @pbdes (opens in new tab).