Pentagon Lease of Chinese Bandwidth Arouses Concern

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. military is leasing bandwidth aboard a Chinese-owned satellite for communications services in Africa, raising eyebrows in Congress and leading the Pentagon to review its procedures for vetting similar arrangements.

The satellite in question is the Apstar 7 owned by Hong Kong-based APT Satellite Holdings, a subsidiary of the China Satellite Communications Co., according to U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Monica Matoush, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The lease was arranged through Harris CapRock Government Solutions of Fairfax, Va., one of 18 companies authorized to provide commercial satellite services to U.S. government customers under the Future Comsatcom Services Acquisition contract, she said.

According to the statement, U.S. Africa Command required coverage of the entire continent using a single satellite and that Harris CapRock, through the Apstar 7 satellite, was the only authorized provider able to meet that requirement. The 1-year lease, which began in May 2012, is worth $10.6 million and could be extended for three more years, she said.

The leasing arrangement first came to light at a hearing of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee April 25.

During the hearing, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the subcommittee, asked Doug Loverro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, if he knew about a Pentagon leasing arrangement with a satellite company in which the Chinese government has a significant stake.

After Loverro confirmed the arrangement, the lawmaker asked whether there is any cause for concern.

Loverro explained that U.S. forces operating in an unspecified location needed satellite communications and went to the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), the Pentagon’s contracting agency for commercial satellite services, to request that support. The agency requested bids from more than a dozen authorized providers, but only one could meet the requirement and that was through a Chinese company, Loverro said.

“We are looking forward to coming out with a process that would examine those [leases] closely as we move forward.” Loverro said. “Clearly we have to go ahead and balance operational needs with the security arrangements there.”

“We recognize that there is concern across the community on the usage of Chinese satellites to support our warfighter, and yet as I expressed, we also recognize that our warfighters need support and sometimes we must go to … the only place that we can get it from, Loverro said.

“All of the correct procedures were followed in putting those leases together,” Loverro said. “We reviewed all the security concerns, all the business concerns, with such a lease.”

Loverro said he became aware of the contract about a month ago. The former executive director of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, Loverro arrived at his new position at Pentagon headquarters March 19.

Matoush said DISA and Africa Command assessed the operational security risks involved in the leasing arrangement and implemented appropriate protective measures to mitigate that risk. All signals to and from the satellite are fully protected with what she characterized as additional “transmission security.”

The Defense Department “has undertaken a review of the procedures that DISA uses to satisfy SatCom service requests to see if changes are needed to enhance [the] decision process,” Matoush said.