Over the past few years, US politicians have expressed serious concerns that far too much sensitive information passes through the hands of companies and agencies located in China. In spite of that, the Pentagon – starved for satellite bandwidth – has decided to pay a Chinese satellite firm to help it communicate and share data with its forces overseas.
The $10 million dollar, one year lease which was recently signed with APT Satellite Holdings, will allow U.S. troops operating on the African continent to use the recently-launched Apstar-7 satellite to share information and communicate with each other.
The Apstar-7 is operated by Hong Kong-based APT Satellite Holdings Ltd, and one of that company’s largest shareholders is the state-controlled China Satellite Communication Company. In addition, the company counts the son of former Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, as its chairman.
All of this indicates a strong connection between the people providing satellite service to the US armed forces and the Chinese government. Because of this, the decision was the subject of a review late last month by the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.
Naturally, the Pentagon defended the decision, saying that the need was great and the Chinese satellite company is the only one that offers the continent-wide coverage that the military requires. As Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Space Policy Doug Loverro told the panel, in remarks first reported by InsideDefence.com:
“That bandwidth was available only on a Chinese satellite. We recognise that there is concerns across the community on the usage of Chinese satellites to support our warfighter. And yet, we also recognise that our warfighters need support, and sometimes we must go to the only place that we can get it from.”
In addition, the Pentagon insists that any data passed through the Apstar-7 is protected from any potential eavesdropping by Beijing. The satellite uplinks and downlinks are encrypted, and unspecified “additional transmission security” procedures cover the data in transit, according to Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, a Defence Department spokesperson.
Though this latest move is cause for concern, it is naturally part of a much larger issue. The demand for satellite bandwidth increases every year due to the growing use of unmanned aerial vehicles and satellite phones.
To try to keep up, the Pentagon has leased bandwidth from commercial carriers for more than a decade, and the next decade is expected to bring even more commercial deals. The Chinese are well- poised to help fill that need, especially over Africa where Beijing has deep business and strategic interests. In 2012, China launched more rockets into space than the U.S. for the first time – including the Chinasat 12 and Apstar-7 communications satellites.
But of course, relying on Chinese companies could be a problematic solution to the bandwidth crunch. In recent years, U.S. officials have publicly accused Chinese telecommunications firms of being, in effect, subcontractors of Beijing’s spies.
Even if the data passing over the Apstar-7 is encrypted, the coded traffic could be used to give Chinese cryptanalysts valuable clues about how the American military obfuscates its information. And even if the Chinese don’t intercept the data, there’s always the danger of them suddenly deciding to block service to the American military.
Dean Cheng, a research fellow and veteran China-watcher at the Heritage Foundation, expressed these concerns succinctly:
“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. This is giving it to them in a nice, neat little package. I think there is a potential security concern.”
What’s more, controlling the flow of US military data would put China in advantageous position should tensions ever arise, especially over territorial concerns in the Pacific. Not only would China be in a position to shut down a great deal of US communications traffic, they would also have a leg up on the espionage front.Sources: wired.com, insidedefense.com
- The American military is using Chinese satellites (chinadailymail.com)
- Pentagon Paying China – Yes, China – To Carry Data (wired.com)
- Pentagon Using China Satellite for U.S.-Africa Command – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- Chinese Satellites provides bandwidth for US drones and US dependence on Chinese Satellites could grow (nextbigfuture.com)
- Pentagon Using China Satellite for U.S.-Africa Command (blacklistednews.com)
- Latest Satellite Contract Shows Just How Much China Is Winning In Africa (businessinsider.com)
- Pentagon using a Chinese satellite for U.S.Africa Command (seeker401.wordpress.com)
- Pentagon’s decision to lease Chinese satellite prompts concerns (wantchinatimes.com)
- WHAT COULD GO WRONG: Pentagon Paying China – Yes, China – To Carry Data. “The Pentagon is so s… (pjmedia.com)
- What was that argument again? (toinformistoinfluence.com)
- Pentagon leaning on Chinese satellite for Africa Command communications (rt.com)