The U.S. has been turning to China to help provide satellite support for American military data operations on the African continent.
According to a report by Wired magazine, U.S. military forces in Africa have begun relying on a Chinese satellite, the recently launched Apstar-7, because it is the only satellite with the bandwidth required to store data by African-based operations. The Apstar-7 is owned by the government-owned China Satellite Communication Company, chaired by former Premier Wen Jiabao’s son. For $10 million dollars the U.S. has a one-year lease of the satellite, a detail that was announced last week during a House Armed Services Committee meeting in Washington.
The announcement has unsurprisingly stirred a backlash among politicians and policy makers criticizing the potential threat to national intelligence by using Chinese-made and -owned hardware to store information.
This deal comes amid growing concern over China’s alleged cyber-hacking, which has alarmed many in the government, particularly House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers.
“They use their military and intelligence structure to steal intellectual property from American businesses, and European businesses, and Asian businesses, re-purpose it and then compete in the international market against the United States,” Rogers said to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in reference to Chinese military hacking allegations.
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“If you want to be an international player,” Rogers continued, “you can’t act like a thief in the night.”
Now, Rogers is echoing the same concern over the satellite deal.
“[The contract] exposes our military to the risk that China may seek to turn off our ‘eyes and ears’ at the time of their choosing. It sends a terrible message to our industrial base at a time when it is under extreme stress,” he said.
Hearing the criticism, those behind the decision still insist that no other viable options are available.
“That bandwidth was available only on a Chinese satellite,” Doug Loverro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said addressing the panel, according to Inside Defense.
“We recognize that there is [sic] concerns across the community on the usage of Chinese satellites to support our warfighter. And yet, we also recognize that our warfighters need support, and sometimes we must go to the only place that we can get it from.”
The bandwidth provided by American military spacecrafts, Wired explains, has long been inadequate for the U.S. military’s growing needs. With every additional drone feed and every new satellite radio used by soldiers, the need for more bandwidth increases. In the past, the U.S. has relied on privately contracted commercial carriers.
Dean Cheng, a research fellow and China expert at the Heritage Foundation, weighed in on the security concerns that should alarm the U.S.
“Is this risky? Well, since the satellite was openly contracted, they [the Chinese] know who is using which transponders. And I suspect they’re making a copy of all of it,” Cheng told Wired.
All data that passes through the Apstar-7 is vulnerable to be acquired by the Chinese. Even if encrypted, China’s military cryptanalysts may still be able to extract data.
“This is giving it to them a nice, neat little package,” Cheng added. “I think there is a potential security concern.”