Defense Department Has Contract With Chinese Satellite Company    Are There Security Concerns

This image shows a satellite being launched in China in 2007. APSTAR-7 was launched in March 2012. (Photo: AP/Xinhua, Li Gang)

Late last week, it was revealed the Pentagon signed a $10 million, one-year contract to use a Chinese satellite for communication and data sharing to support its warfighters in Africa.

Inside Defense reported Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Doug Loverro testifying April 25 before the House Armed Services subcommittee for strategic forces, explaining that the contract with the Chinese company for satellite service was issued last year. The contract is up May 14, according to Wired, and has the potential to be renewed.

“The warfighter needed [satellite communication] support in his area of operations. He went to the Defense Information Systems Agency to request that support,” Loverro said, according to Inside Defense.

And the only provider available to meet the bandwidth needs was China Satellite Communication Company, which is controlled by the state.

“We recognize that there is concern across the community on the usage of Chinese satellites to support our warfighter and, as I expressed, we also recognize that our warfighter needs support and sometimes we must go to the only place that we can get it from,” Loverro said, also noting that commanders are aware of the concerns and follow encryption procedures.

Wired reported the Chinese satellite being used is called Apstar-7 and gave more insight into why the military is relying on satellites where there might be even a slight concern about the security of information:

Every new drone feed and every new soldier with a satellite radio creates more appetite for bandwidth — an appetite the military can’t hope to fill with military spacecraft alone. To try to keep up, the Pentagon has leased bandwidth from commercial carriers for more than a decade. And the next decade should bring even more commercial deals; in March, the Army announced it was looking for new satellite firms to help troops in Afghanistan communicate. According to a 2008 Intelligence Science Board study (.pdf) — one of the few public reports on the subject — demand for satellite communications could grow from about 30 gigabits per second to 80 gigabits a decade from now.

The Chinese are poised to help fill that need — especially over Africa, where Beijing has deep business and strategic interests. In 2012, China for the first time launched more rockets into space than the U.S. – including the Chinasat 12 and Apstar-7 communications satellites.

Wired reported Heritage Foundation research fellow Dean Cheng saying he is “startled” by the revelation of the U.S.’s use of the Chinese satellite.

“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,” he said.

Even with encrypted data, Wired said it could offer clues to the Chinese about how the U.S. Military codes its sensitive data. Another risk would be that the Chinese company could someday refuse to service the needs the U.S., leaving troops depending upon it out of luck.

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Featured image via Shutterstock.com.