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March 15, 2012
Notes from the Pentagon

A senior Pentagon official told Congress last week that the U.S. government is concerned about the leakage of embargoed U.S. space technology to China.

Gregory L. Schulte, deputy assistant defense secretary for space policy, was asked during a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing whether illicit exports of U.S. satellite technology by the French company Thales would boost China’s ambitious space weapons program.

Mr. Schulte was questioned by Rep. Michael R. Turner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the strategic forces subcommittee, about a recent letter he and two other lawmakers had written to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thales‘ sale of satellites to China that contained restricted U.S. space technology. The letter raised concerns about whether such tech transfers would boost the “increasingly aggressive activity in space [by] the People's Republic of China.”

Mr. Schulte said the State Department is investigating the Thales satellite export case.

“The leakage of sensitive technology to countries like China has, of course, been foremost in our mind as we’ve thought about export control reform,” he said.

China’s long-range missiles were improved during the 1990s after two U.S. companies illicitly shared U.S. space technology with Beijing.

Mr. Schulte said the Obama administration is planning to loosen technology export controls by moving some items on the U.S. Munitions List to the more-easily licensed Commerce Control List, but “only space items that are already widely available.”

“And we are not proposing removing the Tiananmen Square sanctions that would remain in place even with export-control reform, meaning that items still on the Munitions List could not be exported to China,” Mr. Schulte said.

“And, also meaning, that we would not allow the launch of satellites from Chinese launch vehicles.”

The administration is also proposing that, for China, all items moved off the Munitions List would still be subject to restrictive licensing and controls. “So we are very conscious of China, and we have developed our export-control proposals with China very much in mind,” Mr. Schulte said.

“In fact, we believe that, to the extent that we focus on those technologies that are most sensitive, we can increase the focus of our export-control and enforcement efforts to avoid situations like this in the future.”

Asked why no sanctions have been imposed on Thales for the illicit U.S. satellite technology export to China, Mr. Schulte said, “We are clearly concerned at any leakage of sensitive technology to China and support all enforcement efforts there.”

Thales came under investigation by the State Department several years ago for offering what it advertised as an “ITAR-free” satellite for sale, meaning it did not require U.S. licensing.

Several of the satellites were sold to China, and U.S. investigators found that they contained U.S. satellite technology that was restricted for export to China.

To date, the State Department has not sanctioned Thales for the exports.

The Pentagon is moving rapidly to try to limit the political fallout from the recent shooting deaths of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier.

Defense analysts say the attack is a severe setback for U.S. and allied counterinsurgency operations in the country that are based in large measure on “soft power” efforts to gain support from the local Afghan population to turn against the Taliban.

The damage grew worse this week when a senior member of the Iran’s parliament called for the withdrawal of all coalition forces from the country.

Senate Speaker Fazl Hadi Moslemyar on Tuesday went on Afghan television in his call for all foreign troops to depart Afghanistan. Mr. Moslemyar also urged all provincial councils to close offices in reaction to the killings.

Mr. Moslemyar said foreigners are not needed in the country and have brought only “calamity” and “failure.”

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta last week disputed published reports that the United States had supplied advanced bunker-busting bombs to Israel.

Asked about the bombs at a meeting with reporters, Mr. Panetta said, “We have not discussed that area.”

Instead, the United States is discussing increasing missile defenses for Israel, which likely would face a large-scale missile attack from Iran in response to any military action against Iran’s fortified nuclear facilities, Mr. Panetta said.

“We have very close military relationships [with Israel],” Mr. Panetta said. “We obviously talk about a lot of things in terms of plans and training, etc., and we will continue to have that kind of relationship in the future.”

The defense secretary went on to outline the U.S. position on an Israeli attack, stating that the United States shares Israel’s concerns but wants more time to allow sanctions to work before conducting an attack.

“We obviously respect their sovereignty. We understand that they have to make decisions, you know, that are in their interest; the United States also has to make decisions that are in our interest,” he said.

“And obviously we will do whatever we can to defend Israel, but more importantly, when it comes to Iran, we have common cause against Iran.

“We have the same concerns as Israel with regards to their obtaining a nuclear weapon, and we’ve made very clear we are going to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And we are also going to ensure that they do not close the Straits of Hormuz.”

Asked why the United States appears to be taking a strong position on Iran’s nuclear weapons, while saying less about North Korea’s nuclear arms program that is further along, Mr. Panetta said the United States is concerned about the North Korean nuclear arms and is continuing to press Pyongyang to “step back” from further developing nuclear arms.

As for Iran, “Obviously the concern there is the destabilization that would occur in that region if Iran were to obtain a nuclear weapon,” he said.

Michele Flournoy, who in February stepped down as undersecretary of defense for policy, said during remarks last week that two countries in the region are set to develop nuclear weapons if Iran get the arms. She did not name the countries, but speculation has focused on Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Marine Corps. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the U.S. Central Command, made some disparaging comments last week about Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.

Asked during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee about Iran’s growing international isolation and whether it has any strategic allies, Gen. Mattis said:

“There are some that have blocked, for their own reasons, resolutions in the United Nations, regrettably. But I don’t see them having allies. I don’t count that little fellow down in Venezuela as a very significant ally.”

Mr. Chavez publicly joked about having a “big atomic bomb” during a meeting in Venezuela in January with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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