News has leaked that U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) uses China’s APSTAR-7 satellite for transmitting some of its communications, which means some American military communications are passing through Chinese satellites.
There are probably two reasons for this. In the first place, the U.S. military is a massive bandwidth user. The various teleconferences, e-mails, PowerPoint slides, and other communications that link American forces globally all require bandwidth in order to get from point A to point B.
That doesn’t even touch upon the reliance on commercial communications satellites for such tasks as guiding drones. U.S. military forces, at present, heavily rely on commercial communications satellites in order to meet the ever-increasing demand for bandwidth. There simply is not enough bandwidth on the current fleet of U.S. military communications satellites to meet all the demand; moreover, some of the bandwidth on those satellites must be reserved for essential, secure communications in support of U.S. nuclear forces and other sensitive elements.
The second reason is the emphasis placed on Africa by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). China is now Africa’s largest trading partner. This is partly rooted in the importance of African raw materials in sustaining China’s economic growth, reflected in China’s substantial trade ties to Africa—notably in Sudan and Zimbabwe—as well as the extensive Chinese purchases of oil from Angola, now China’s largest sub-Saharan trading partner.
But China is also playing a major role in building Africa’s infrastructure. Chinese telecommunications companies such as Huawei and ZTE have been key players in improving Africa’s communications capacity—and have integrated themselves into that backbone in the process. At the same time, China has expressed interest in selling satellites to various African countries, including Nigeria’s first communications satellite, NIGCOMSAT-1.
Given the substantial Chinese financial interests, as well as the growing Chinese footprint in Africa (due in part to China’s provision of its own labor force for many of its projects), it should not be surprising that Beijing would have chosen to place one of its own communications satellites in a position to cover the African continent. Thus, when the U.S. military needed a satellite to carry communications to forces committed to Africa, it found that China was one of the only providers.
For the U.S. to rely on a Chinese satellite, however, badly misreads what is in the American interest. In the event of an African crisis where the U.S. and the PRC fundamentally disagreed—as they do now over Syria—does the Obama Administration or the American military leadership believe that China will allow such communications to flow unimpeded? Even in peacetime, moreover, espionage is an ongoing concern.
Providing the Chinese with ready access to U.S. communications would seem to go further than necessary in promoting U.S.–Chinese cooperation. Even if there were 100 percent assurance of the security of such communications, using a Chinese satellite would nonetheless provide Beijing with ample opportunities to link communications with terrestrial activities, providing insight into operational patterns, standard operating procedures, and a host of other valuable pieces of information.