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Red faces as Pentagon leases Chinese satellite

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US lawmakers are up in arms after it emerged that the Pentagon has leased a Chinese commercial satellite to support non-classified communications with its African bases.

The details of the one-year, $10m contract were revealed at a House Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill last week. The Apstar-7 satellite is owned and operated by APT Satellite Holdings, a Hong Kong-based firm which is itself owned by the Beijing-run China Satellite Communication Company.

Republican Mike Rogers, an outspoken critic of China and chair of the House Intelligence Committee which branded Huawei and ZTE national security risks last year, expressed deep concern at how the Pentagon deal had been done without any political input.

In a statement sent to Bloomberg he said the lease “exposes our military to the risk that China may seek to turn off our ‘eyes and ears’ at the time of their choosing”.

However, US military officials, while recognising that such decisions need to be taken with wider vetting from across the Deaprtment of Defense, appear to have few security concerns.

In another statement sent to the news wire, Pentagon spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Monica Matoush said the Defense Information Systems Agency and the Africa Command “made an informed risk assessment of operational security considerations and implemented appropriate transmission and communications security and information assurance measures”.

She added that “all signals to and through the Apstar-7 satellite are fully protected with additional transmission security”, although failed to clarify exactly what these were.

Although commercial satellites are thoughts to be used by US military on a fairly regular basis for low-level comms, perhaps more worrying for the States is that a Chinese satellite appears to have been the only option for the Pentagon in this instance.

It also appears to go, in spirit at least, against a recent spending bill which banned various government agencies from buying technology from companies “owned, operated or subsidised” by the People’s Republic of China.

It’s perhaps indicative of the relative economic strengths of the world’s two superpowers and their military budgets that the Pentagon was forced to do a deal with a country described last year as “the most threatening actor in cyberspace”.

While the US exposes itself to greater risk, China, meanwhile, is taking concrete steps to reduce its dependence on the West, with the continued development of its GPS alternative Beidou.

The system's 16 satellites currently provide a decent service only for the APAC region, although with more launches on the way, China plans it to be truly global by 2020. ®

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