Every new drone feed and every new soldier with a satellite radio creates more appetite for bandwidth — an appetite the military can’t hope to fill with military spacecraft alone. To try to keep up, the Pentagon has leased bandwidth from commercial carriers for more than a decade. And the next decade should bring even more commercial deals; in March, the Army announced it was looking for new satellite firms to help troops in Afghanistan communicate. According to a 2008 Intelligence Science Board study — one of the few public reports on the subject — demand for satellite communications could grow from about 30 gigabits per second to 80 gigabits a decade from now.
The Chinese are poised to help fill that need — especially over Africa, where Beijing has deep business and strategic interests. In 2012, China for the first time launched more rockets into space than the U.S. – including the Chinasat 12 and Apstar-7 communications satellites.
U.S. officials have in recent years publicly accused Chinese telecommunications firms of being, in effect, subcontractors of Beijing’s spies.
I’m startled,” says Dean Cheng, a research fellow and veteran China-watcher at the Heritage Foundation. “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.”
Even if the data passing over the Apstar-7 is encrypted, the coded traffic could be used to give Chinese cryptanalysts valuable clues about how the American military obfuscates its information. “This is giving it to them in a nice, neat little package. I think there is a potential security concern.”
And even if the Chinese don’t intercept the data, there’s always the danger of them suddenly deciding to block service to the American military.