Use of Chinese Satellite for US Africa Command Criticized

Some US lawmakers have sought to sensationalize the Pentagon’s decision to use a Chinese commercial satellite to provide a satellite communications link to its small Africa Command.

The communication satellite in question is Apstar-7 operated by Hong Kong-based APT Satellite Holdings Ltd. A 61% stake in the firm is held by state-owned China Aerospace Science & Technology Corp, according to Bloomberg. The Apstar-7 was leased for a 1-year period in May of 2012 by Fairfax Virginia-based defense contractor Harris CapRock Communications, one of 18 companies under contract by the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) to provide specialized commercial satellite services.

The contract, whose value is about $11 million, came to light on April 25 at a House Armed Services Committee hearing through questioning by Representative Mike Rogers (R-Alabama) who chairs the panel that oversees space programs.

The lease “exposes our military to the risk that China may seek to turn off our ‘eyes and ears’ at the time of their choosing,” Rogers said in an email to Bloomberg. “It sends a terrible message to our industrial base at a time when it is under extreme stress” from sequestration.

Rogers added that 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.”

Joining in similar criticisms were Representative John Garamendi (D-Calif.).

The decision to lease Apstar-7 was defended by Douglas Loverro, the Pentagon’s top space policy official, as the only available way to support an urgent “operational need.”

“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],” Loverro said.

The US military communications uses commercial satellites on “a regular and sustained basis” and “doesn’t have major concerns with the arrangement,” said to Steve Hildreth, a military space policy expert.

The Pentagon uses commercial satellites most of its non-classified telecommunications requirements, “especially in areas where we do not have a big military presence like Africa,” said Frank Slazer, vice president for space of the Aerospace Industries Association.

Not counting the Middle East but counting the Indian Ocean island base on Diego Garcia, the US has less than 1,000 troops in Africa. The US also has 15,000 troops in Kuwait and about 3,000 in Bahrain, as well as a few hundred each in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the UAE. However, those troops in the Middle East are not part of the Africa Command.

The DISA defended the lease by noting that all signals sent via Apstar-7 is encrypted.

The Apstar-7 lease expires May 14. DISA has the option to extend it for up to three more years.