The Pentagon will continue for another year the lease of a Chinese commercial satellite to provide communications for its Africa Command.
The use of China’s Apstar-7 satellite will be extended under a $10.7 million lease through the government solutions unit of a U.S. company, Harris CapRock Communications, the Pentagon said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.
The choice of a Chinese satellite by the Pentagon’s Defense Information Systems Agency was criticized last month by the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee subcommittee that oversees space programs.
It “exposes our military to the risk that China may seek to turn off our ‘eyes and ears’ at the time of their choosing,” Representative Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican, said last month.
Apstar-7 is operated by APT Satellite Holdings Ltd. The state-owned China Aerospace Science & Technology Corp. owns less than 40 percent of Hong Kong-based APT, Brian Lo, APT vice president and company secretary, said in an e-mail.
The Fairfax, Virginia-based unit of Harris CapRock is one of 18 companies under an established contract the Defense Information Systems Agency uses for specialized commercial satellite services.
“Under close examination, Apstar-7 remained the only satellite solution available that meets AFRICOM’s satellite communications requirements, and operational necessity dictated that the lease be renewed,” the Pentagon said in yesterday’s statement.
“Simultaneously, we are actively working to identify future options” to support the Africa Command through “a more preferred solution in the future,” according to the Defense Department, which said its office of space policy also is creating “oversight mechanisms to better manage and assess leasing commercial communications services” over satellites connected to states subject to economic sanctions.
Harris CapRock spokeswoman Alix Hornig said in an e-mailed statement before yesterday’s announcement that “we currently provide managed satellite communications to thousands of remote sites worldwide utilizing” capacity “across more than 60 different satellites.”
Harris CapRock doesn’t “own or operate any satellites directly,” she said. “We lease raw satellite capacity from satellite fleet operators and incorporate it into satellite solutions, which we design based on customer requirements.”
Rogers, the lawmaker, said last month that the use of the Chinese satellite “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.
Frank Slazer, vice president for space of the Aerospace Industries Association, said last month that 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 Pentagon said in the statement that the continued Apstar-7 lease “highlights the growing concern” within the Defense Department to improve its capability to provide commercial satellite communications.
“The department is committed to work with industry on finding better ways to meet those needs,” it said.