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Pentagon leaning on Chinese satellite for Africa Command communications

Published time: May 01, 2013 00:06
Image from nasaspaceflight.com

Image from nasaspaceflight.com

On the heels of a new presidential resolution for US government agencies to avoid Chinese IT hardware over security concerns, the Pentagon has sparked outcry by disclosing its lease of bandwidth from a Chinese satellite.

According to Pentagon spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Monica Matoush, the US Africa Command has decided to lease space on the Apstar-7 satellite, which is majority operated by China’s state-owned Aerospace Science & Technology Corp via Hong Kong-based APT Satellite Holdings.

The military contract has been active since 2012, when Department of Defense contractor Harris CapRock Communications arranged the $10.6 million one-year lease. That agreement is set to expire on May 14, though the agency has the option to increase it by an additional three years, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

Via an emailed statement by Lt. Col. Matoush, both US Africa Command and the Defense Information Systems Agency “made an informed risk assessment of operational security considerations and implemented appropriate transmission and communications security and information assurance measures.”

According to Dean Cheng, a research fellow and veteran China-watcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation who spoke with Wired, the Apstar-7 satellite contract presents security concerns for the US.

“I’m startled. Is this risky? Well, since the satellite was openly contracted, they [the Chinese] know who is using which transponders. And I suspect they’re making a copy of all of it,” according to Cheng.

“This is giving it to them in a nice, neat little package. I think there is a potential security concern,” added Cheng.

In her emailed statement, Lt. Col. Matoush noted that the security of “all signals to and through the Apstar-7 satellite are fully protected with additional transmission security.” The latter referring to the encryption of US data.

The Pentagon’s contract peaked the curiosity of lawmakers in Congress when it was disclosed on April 25 during a House Armed Services Committee. As Bloomberg reports, Representative Mike Rogers (R-Alabama), chairman of the panel overseeing space programs, believes that the arrangement with the Chinese satellite operator sends a bad message:  

“[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,” said Rogers.

“It sends a terrible message to our industrial base at a time when it is under extreme stress,” he added.

Douglas Loverro, the Pentagon’s top space and satellite policy official, informed the House panel that the Apstar-7 lease was the only one available to fill 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.”

Steve Hildreth, a military space policy expert with the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, also told Bloomberg that “a very high percentage of US military communications use commercial satellites on a regular and sustained basis.”

“The US military does not have major concerns with this arrangement,” according to Hildreth.

The “urgent” need quoted by Loverro refers to the US military’s increasing reliance on data uplinks for coordinating ground operations and drone reconnaissance. Owing to a lack of capacity by military and commercial satellites, apparently the Pentagon saw no choice but to enact the agreement for use of the Apstar-7 satellite.

In 2012 China exceeded US satellite launches for the first time, though American companies still owned the largest portion of total satellites launched into orbit that same year.

Even if the Department of Defense can assure critics that the data transmitted through the China-operated satellite can remain secure, it’s likely to still attract outcry, demonstrating a fragmented policy direction on the part of the US government.

In late March 2013, in a new government IT security measure, the US Commerce Department, Justice Department, NASA and the National Science Foundation were all directed to assess any risk with equipment acquisitions manufactured or assembled by one or more entities owned, directed, or subsidized by China.