With the Pentagon increasingly reliant on commercial satellite services, U.S. government officials have growing concerns that commercial satellites are too vulnerable to attack.

“No other military in the world uses space systems the way we do, a fact noted by friend and potential foe alike,” U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Robert Kehler, deputy commander for U.S. Strategic Command, told members of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee June 21.

The vulnerability of commercial satellites, fledgling efforts to make them more robust and the way the Pentagon buys commercial satellite services were all major topics during the hearing.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), ranking member on the subcommittee, noted that while more than 80 percent of the Pentagon’s satellite communications are provided by commercial systems, the public is largely unaware of the important role they play not just for the military but throughout the U.S. economy. “The public in general is pretty much asleep on what space assets mean to their everyday lives,” Reyes said.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow for Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution here, testified at the hearing that many countries are capable of building a microsatellite that could be used as an anti-satellite weapon to go after U.S. satellite communications.

Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), chairman of the subcommittee, pressed O’Hanlon on how likely such an attack would be.

“No one would do this lightly,” O’Hanlon said. “But it could be a trump card. If you’re in a war and trying to think of one way to reduce U.S. capacity, that is frankly not a bad ‘Hail Mary’ pass, given your other options.”

While members of Congress expressed concern about the vulnerability of commercial space assets and acknowledged the military’s dependence on commercial providers, representatives of the satellite industry said that as businesses invest more money in safety measures, they hope to see the government embrace industry-friendly policies in return .

David Cavossa, executive director of the Washington-based Satellite Industry Association, testified that the military spent approximately $650 million on commercial communications services and equipment in 2005, and is expected to spend more than $1 billion by 2010. He said that industry members also have spent a good deal of money to make sure the equipment and services they provide are secure.

“During the last five years, the industry has spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars to ensure the security and reliability of infrastructure,” Cavossa said.

Industry members have formed working groups with Department of Defense representatives to further explore solutions to such potential problems as jamming and interference, Cavossa said. In addition, the Defense Department has taken steps to integrate commercial providers into exercises such as war gaming.

“DoD has asked industry to modify its facilities, operations and hardware, both space- and ground-based, to achieve greater overall security,” Cavossa testified. “Industry is willing to comply with these new requirements, and in return expects the DoD to adopt commercial best practices such as long-term leasing and incorporating commercial satellites into their long-term planning,” he said.

Satellite operators have long been advocates of multi year leases, saying this would allow them to offer the government customers greater discounts, customize their offerings to fit government needs and ensure that they would devote enough capacity to their government customers.

Industry members’ arguments in favor of multi year leases received some credence in a June 7 Department of Defense report, titled “Commercial Satellite Communications: Service Spend Analysis and Strategy Report.”

The report said that DoD both has the authority to issue multiyear contracts, and would apply this authority “in a more deliberate fashion to maximize multiyear benefits” in the future.

Multiyear contracts have been touted as saving up to 15 percent on a five-year contract, though DoD expects the savings would not be this high because the agency already receives discounts in a variety of other ways, the report states .

At the hearing, Cavossa recommended that the United States develop a national policy that relies on commercial providers to the maximum extent possible. He also recommended that the country’s export restrictions be revisited, saying the laws keep U.S. firms from competing internationally.

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wa.) asked Cavossa if any other countries have similar export controls, which restrict the exportation of a variety of space-related equipment.

“I don’t know of any others that are as strict,” Cavossa said.

Comments: mfrederick@space.com