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

WASHINGTON — Citing a new process that elevates decisions on certain commercial satellite leases to senior levels, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has renewed a controversial bandwidth leasing arrangement involving a Hong Kong company with substantial Chinese government ownership.

The satellite in question is Apstar 7, operated by APT Satellite Holdings. The company is nearly 40 percent owned by China Aerospace Corp., which in turn is owned by the Chinese government. The new decision-making process was used to execute the one-year, $10.7 million contract renewal with Harris CapRock Government Solutions of Fairfax, Va., which provides DoD with satellite solutions using capacity leased from third parties, according to a DoD statement.

“The Department of Defense has initiated an oversight mechanism to better manage and assess leasing commercial communication services provided over satellites owned, operated, or launched from states currently subject to comprehensive or tailored economic sanctions. This oversight mechanism will more thoroughly scrutinize potential satellite communication leases and potential alternatives with the main purpose of protecting national security interests, even while providing operational capability,” the DoD statement said. 

Approval for such leases will now be made at the joint staff-DoD chief information officer level, the statement said. Previously, such decisions were made within the Defense Information Systems Agency.

The Pentagon originally entered into the Apstar 7 lease in May 2012 to fulfill a requirement for single-satellite coverage of all of Africa from U.S. Africa Command. The Pentagon said Harris CapRock, through APT Satellite Holdings, was alone among its 18 approved satellite telecom solutions providers in being able to fulfill that need.

Nevertheless, the lease has drawn criticism from some lawmakers including Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, who objected to relying on China, which is widely viewed as a potential adversary, for satellite services.

“Under close examination, APSTAR-7 remained the only satellite solution available that meets U.S. Africa Command’s SATCOM requirements, and operational necessity dictated that the lease be renewed,” the DoD statement said. “Simultaneously, we are actively working to identify future options to support AFRICOM’s need to assure that DoD can move to a more preferred solution in the future.”

The statement also reaffirmed DoD’s commitment to work with industry to find better ways to meet its space-related needs.    

Harris CapRock, in a statement, said: “Harris CapRock incorporates leased satellite capacity into solutions designed based on customer requirements, focusing on a number of factors including equipment size, geographic considerations, atmospheric conditions, look angles, and data rates — all of which are balanced to optimize satellite resources. For all the solutions we design, Harris CapRock provides an added layer of anonymity and security by positioning ourselves between our customer and the satellite fleet operators. Satellite operators do not know the end user or purpose of the solution — only that they are providing satellite capacity to a U.S. company.”


Pentagon’s Lease of Chinese Bandwidth Arouses Concern

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...