The Corner

Why Is the Pentagon Buying Satellite Services from China?

Let’s hope the Department of Defense is only using its Chinese satellites to distribute the latest mess-hall menus. The Pentagon’s purchases of Chinese space communications services was revealed on Capitol Hill this week and reported on by Noah Schachtman in Wired.

Should we be surprised, angry, or confused that, just two months after a blockbuster report on Chinese hacking was released, the American public now finds out that its military is using Chinese satellites from a subsidiary of a state-owned company to render communications services in Africa that the world’s largest and richest economy cannot provide?

There are probably tons of important lessons to be drawn from this sorry episode, from the state of America’s space and telecommunications industry to the scale of communications swamping our military to questions of timely congressional oversight. But sometimes, the Obama administration’s choices seem so mind-bogglingly unserious that no amount of measured response seems adequate. The Pentagon assured Congress that it understood the concerns raised by the use of Chinese satellites, but that the military’s top-notch encryption and mysterious “additional transmission security” procedures will keep our information safe. The department argues that it simply must find outlets for communications services, since the troops (rightfully) need them. No one doubts that our advanced control of information is a huge part of why the U.S. military is the most lethal in the world. 

So, the only option was China? Then how about building some more satellites, instead of cutting the military budget so much that, among other tidbits now being released to the public, one third of America’s combat squadrons have been stood down through the summer. Reassess and triage your communications needs, instead of looking like the college boys rushing Omega Theta Pi in Animal House (“Thank you, sir, may I have another?”). My response may well be as unserious as the government’s, but if you can’t do the job, then get the hell out of the business.

Now think about where we’re going with our current cuts. In a decade’s time, how many more Chinese satellites will we be using because we haven’t increased the Air Force’s space budget? How many more military vehicles will depend on sub-standard Chinese auto parts? How many computers will use components made in China? 

Does this mean that every U.S. military transaction, communication, or destination is logged by the Chinese? Of course not (at least one hopes). But it shows the increasing hollowness of the U.S. security apparatus. We know that the Chinese hack us at every turn, including our defense contractors, senior officials, newspapers, think tankers, etc. So somehow we’re supposed to believe that the thousands of PLA-trained hackers won’t have a field day diverting our military information when it’s being moved on their own systems? 

A country with pretensions to remaining a global power will not be taken seriously when it acts unseriously. Moreover, a country with global commitments cannot perform its responsibilities when its dysfunctional civilian masters don’t take seriously enough their charge to ensure that what we ask of our men and women in uniform is backed up by all the resources they need. We increasingly are becoming a country whose mouth is writing a check its body cannot cash. 

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