WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department, which was criticized last year for using satellite capacity that was indirectly leased from a company with substantial Chinese government ownership, expects to fully extricate itself from that arrangement by May, a senior official said.

In written testimony to the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee March 12, Doug Loverro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said the Pentagon has made “significant progress” in moving satellite communications leases from the Apstar satellite system to other commercial satellite providers in the region. 

In April 2013, Loverro and other Defense Department leaders came under fire from a House subcommittee for using transponder capacity aboard the Apstar 7 satellite owned by APT Satellite Holdings Co. of Hong Kong. APT is nearly 40 percent owned by the China Aerospace Corp., which is in turn owned by the Chinese government.

The capacity was acquired by the Defense Information Systems Agency through Harris CapRock Government Solutions of Fairfax, Va. 

Harris Caprock originally entered into the Apstar 7 lease on behalf of the Pentagon 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 the only one of its 18 approved satellite telecom solutions providers that was able to fulfill that need.

“All of the correct procedures were followed in putting those leases together,” Loverro said in April 2013. “We reviewed all the security concerns, all the business concerns, with such a lease.”

Loverro said the Pentagon would nonetheless review its satellite leasing procedures. 

The following month, the Defense Department renewed the arrangement with Harris Caprock for a one-year period. In his March 12 written testimony, Loverro said the renewal was strictly a stopgap type of measure.

“I agreed that while the initial lease was driven by operational need, it was not an appropriate long-term solution,” Loverro said. “We have already transitioned over 75% of the Apstar bandwidth to other satellites, and our intent is to be completely transitioned by May of this year.”

Also in his testimony, Loverro discussed the Defense Department’s recent decision to declassify a space-surveillance satellite that is expected to launch later this year.

Known as the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, the two-satellite system will operate in a “near-geosynchronous orbit regime” to provide accurate tracking and characterization of man-made objects in that orbit. 

Satellites with critical missions including communications and missile warning operate in the geosynchronous-orbit belt roughly 36,000 kilometers above the equator.

“Our decision to declassify this program was simple,” Loverro said. “We need to monitor what happens [36,000 kilometers] above the Earth and we want to make sure that everyone knows we can do so.

“We believe that such efforts add immeasurably to both the safety of spaceflight and the stability that derives from the ability to attribute actions to the benefit of all space-faring nations and all who rely on space-based services.”

Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., is the prime contractor on the surveillance satellites.

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Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...