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Will U.S. monitor launches in China?

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Hughes Electronics Corp. is offering to pay for Defense Department monitoring of its launches of U.S. satellites on Chinese rockets even though it says there is no danger of a national security risk in the strictly commercial launches.

The unusual offer from Hughes Vice Chairman Steven D. Dorfman came at a House subcommittee hearing Wednesday looking into export licensing for communications satellites for which no U.S. rockets are available.Satellite makers urgently need inexpensive ways to launch their products into space, but Congress is concerned that militarily useful technology might be leaked to China and possibly shared with rogue states.

Dorfman denied any such problem but said having Defense Department personnel closely monitor every launch "would make us all feel more comfortable." Hughes manufactured close to half of all satellites now orbiting the earth.

Dorfman told the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee on international security, proliferation and federal services that his company's management and employees are "deeply distressed" by allegations the launches may have strengthened China's military capability.

The Senate is set to consider legislation that would transfer licensing of launches of U.S. commercial satellites in other countries from the Commerce Department to the State and Defense departments - a move already approved by the House and strongly opposed by the industry because it would classify commercial satellites as "munitions."

"A commercial communicating satellite is the equivalent of telephone wire or television cable," insisted C. Michael Armstrong, head of AT&T and former head of Hughes, who also testified before the committee.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss and subcommittee chairman, said commercial pressures have led U.S. satellite makers to help China improve its rockets at the same time U.S. government oversight has slackened.