HASC Asks About DOD Use of Chinese Satellite

HASC Asks About DOD Use of Chinese Satellite

A House Armed Services Committee (HASC) subcommittee asked a Defense of Department (DOD) official on Thursday if he knew of DOD leasing any commercial satellite services from companies with significant ownership by the People’s Republic of China.  The somewhat surprising answer was “yes.”

The question came as part of a hearing by the HASC Strategic Forces subcommittee on the FY2014 budget request for national security space activities.  Witnesses were DOD’s new Deputy Assistant Secretary for Space Policy, Doug Loverro; DOD Deputy Assistant Secretary, Space and Intelligence Office, Gil Klinger; Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. William Shelton; and Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, Betty Sapp.

Most of the hearing discussed familiar issues such as DOD’s launch services procurement strategy and the role of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) — Delta IV and Atlas V, offered by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) — versus “new entrants” like SpaceX.   Shelton reiterated what he has said in other venues that DOD is procuring 50 new core launch vehicles, 36 of which will be assigned to ULA while the other 14 are open for competition to certified providers including ULA.   New entrants like SpaceX are still working on becoming certified under DOD’s criteria.

The launch vehicle debate has been ongoing for several years.  What was new at Thursday’s hearing was the revelation that DOD is leasing commercial satellite communications services from a company partially owned by China.   Many House Republicans are opposed to civilian space cooperation with China and the law prohibits NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from spending any money in connection with China unless certain conditions are met.  No similar restrictions have been placed on DOD, however.

Loverro told the subcommittee that he became aware of the leases when he assumed his new job about a month ago. He did not specify what satellite it is, but explained that an operational commander needed services in a particular area of operations and that was the only satellite with the necessary bandwidth.   All the correct procedures were followed, including a security review, in putting the lease together, he insisted.  The operational commander understood the situation and the encryption that would be required, but the bottom line is that warfighters need support and “sometimes we must go to … the only place we can get it from.”  The Defense Information Services Agency (DISA), which is responsible for procuring communications services for DOD, went out to its suppliers and “only one provider had the bandwidth” to meet the need and it was “on a Chinese satellite,” Loverro explained.

The larger issue, he said, is that there is no clear DOD policy on how to make such decisions.   He is working with DISA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff now to develop a process, but could not provide details because “we just decided to do this literally a week-and-a-half ago.”

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