U.S. law forbids the launch of American satellite components on Chinese rockets such as the Long March 3B (above). Credit: Xinhua

The U.S. military’s indirect lease of satellite capacity from a company owned in part by the Chinese government bolsters industry’s case that the Department of Defense (DoD) needs to change the way it secures commercial satellite communications services.

Satellite operators have long urged DoD to commit to long-term leases that would enable them to align their fleets to meet future military demand, wherever it might crop up. Without such commitments, they say, the military could find itself without the bandwidth necessary to support some unforeseen contingency operation, particularly as it shifts its focus to Asia.

Industry now has a concrete example of what a lack of contingency planning could portend in the Pentagon’s use of capacity aboard the Apstar 7 satellite owned by Hong Kong-based APT Satellite Holdings. The company is nearly 40 percent owned by China Aerospace Corp., which in turn is owned by the Chinese government. In this case, the DoD’s hand was forced by the fact that no other company could meet its requirement, originating from U.S. Africa Command, for coverage of the entire African continent using a single satellite.

It should be emphasized that nobody appears to have done anything wrong here. The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), which procures commercial satellite capacity for military users, requested bids from its pool of 18 qualified providers, and Harris CapRock Government Solutions, via Apstar 7, was the only one able to meet the requirement. Both Harris CapRock and DoD maintain that the arrangement was properly vetted and the signals fully encrypted, and there’s no reason to doubt that.

But those assurances have failed to mollify some U.S. lawmakers, among them Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. In a statement released after a hearing that touched on the matter, Mr. Rogers said the arrangement was approved by a “low-level” Pentagon agency, “seemingly with no input from political appointees at DoD,” and puts U.S. forces at risk of having vital communications services summarily taken away by the Chinese government.

Whether or not either is the case, the contract does put the Pentagon in the awkward position of reliance on a country widely viewed as a potential adversary for satellite communications services, which are part and parcel of just about everything the military does these days. If the DoD, Congress or the White House can live with that, fine. If not, now’s a great time to get serious about changing some of the rules that industry officials have long said make it difficult for satellite operators to prepare for future and perhaps unforeseen military bandwidth requirements.

According to the Defense Business Board, an independent advisory panel tasked last year to look into the DoD’s commercial bandwidth buying practices, meeting government demand is becoming more challenging as global economic growth creates competing demand. The board also noted that the Pentagon, whose own demand is only going to grow, is ill-prepared to respond to unsolicited industry ideas, no matter how innovative or attractive; that industry deploys capacity far more quickly and cheaply than the government; and that DoD responsibility for providing satellite communications is divided.

The board recommended a number of actions that could allow commercial operators to position assets in such a way as to ensure that DoD won’t find itself in a bandwidth crisis should a contingency arise in a currently underserved corner of the globe. These include exploiting opportunities for long-term leasing, hosted payload, anchor tenancy and temporary ownership arrangements, and creating a single point of authority at DoD for procuring satellite communications capabilities. 

Industry officials have repeatedly noted that the abundance of commercial bandwidth available when war came to Afghanistan and Iraq was by coincidence rather than design: Satellite operators had overinvested in the region and were sitting on excess capacity when the U.S.-led military coalition arrived. Adopting at least some of the Defense Business Board’s recommendations would help ensure that future bandwidth availability is not left to the vagaries of the marketplace, especially in far-flung regions where current demand is less than robust.

Faced with questions about the Apstar 7 lease, which currently is up for renewal, the DoD said it is undertaking a review of its satellite leasing practices, and that’s well and good. But if limited to the procedures that led to and cleared this particular arrangement, it’s hard to envision such a review spurring meaningful and positive changes, especially given DoD’s assertion that it had no other options and that all necessary precautions were taken. 

What’s needed is a broad and critical examination of DoD’s relationship with the satellite telecom industry, which in its current form has operators justifiably reluctant to deploy capacity in anticipation of demand that may or may not materialize. Congress can do its part by encouraging — or at least being open to — nontraditional business arrangements, such as a modified variant of the flawed Assured Satcom Services in a Single Theater initiative, which lawmakers rejected two years ago.

Until and unless the DoD is able to embrace closer partnerships with the satellite operators — to be sure, this likely will require making some up-front investments, even if industry is reluctant to characterize it that way — it will not be in position to be choosy about the satellite companies that get its business.