A U.S. lawmaker is questioning the Pentagon’s decision to use a Chinese commercial satellite to provide communications for its Africa Command.
Use of China’s Apstar-7 satellite was leased because it provided “unique bandwidth and geographic requirements” for “wider geographic coverage” requested in May 2012 by the U.S. Africa Command, according to Lieutenant Colonel Monica Matoush, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
Apstar-7 is operated by APT Satellite Holdings Ltd. The state-owned China Aerospace Science & Technology Corp. holds 61 percent of Hong Kong-based APT, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The Pentagon contract was disclosed without details at an April 25 House Armed Services Committee hearing during questioning from Representative Mike Rogers of Alabama, chairman of the panel that oversees space programs.
The contract “exposes our military to the risk that China may seek to turn off our ’eyes and ears’ at the time of their choosing,” Rogers, a Republican, said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. “It sends a terrible message to our industrial base at a time when it is under extreme stress” from the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
The Defense Information Systems Agency and the Africa Command “made an informed risk assessment of operational security considerations and implemented appropriate transmission and communications security and information assurance measures,” Matoush, of the Pentagon, said in an e-mailed statement. She said the security of “all signals to and through the Apstar-7 satellite are fully protected with additional transmission security.”
The satellite’s services were leased under a one-year, $10.6 million contract through the government solutions unit of a U.S. company, Harris CapRock Communications. The Fairfax, Virginia-based unit is one of 18 companies under an established contract the Defense Information Systems Agency uses for specialized commercial satellite services.
While the Apstar-7 lease expires May 14, the agency has the option to extend it for as long as three more years.
Rogers said he was “deeply concerned a low-level DoD agency was able to enter into a contract with a Chinese company to use a Chinese satellite launched by a Chinese missile, seemingly with no input from the political appointees in DoD.”
Representative John Garamendi, a California Democrat, said the Chinese satellite lease confirms his suspicion that there’s a lack of coordination among the Pentagon offices that oversee intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, his spokesman, Matthew Kravitz, said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.
Douglas Loverro, the Pentagon’s top space policy official, told the House panel last week that the Apstar-7 lease was the only one available to support an urgent “operational need, but we also recognize that we need to have a good process in place to assure this” type of decision “is vetted across the department.”
“We recognize that there is concern across the community on the usage of Chinese satellites to support our warfighter, and yet” officials recognize commanders “need support and sometimes we must go” to “the only place that we can get” the service, he said.
Steve Hildreth, a military space policy expert with the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, said in an e-mail that U.S. officials have told him “a very high percentage of U.S. military communications use commercial satellites on a regular and sustained basis.”
“The U.S. military does not have major concerns with this arrangement,” he said.
Frank Slazer, vice president for space of the Aerospace Industries Association, said the Pentagon uses commercial satellite providers for the bulk of its non-classified telecommunications requirements, “especially in areas where we do not have a big military presence like Africa.”
The lease “underscores the limitations” of not investing enough U.S. money in non-classified military satellite programs and “depending only on the commercial market for national security telecom requirements,” said Slazer, whose Arlington, Virginia-based trade group lobbies for the defense industry.
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said in its 2012 annual report said China is “the most threatening actor in cyberspace” as its intelligence agencies and hackers use increasingly sophisticated techniques to gain access to U.S. military computers and defense contractors.
Chinese hackers are moving into “increasingly advanced types of operations or operations against specialized targets,” such as sensors and apertures on deployed U.S. military platforms, according to the report.
Chinese officials have denied responsibility for cyberattacks and said their country is often the victim of such intrusions.