The United States is going to finance Azerbaijan's first communications satellite, despite objections from some US-based Armenian groups that argue it could be used for military purposes.
The US Export-Import Bank, an agency of the US government, has agreed to finance Baku's purchase of the AzerSat satellite from the US manufacturer Orbital. The satellite will cost $120 million, of which 85 percent will be paid by funds loaned through the bank and repaid by Azerbaijan over the next 10 years.
Some Armenian groups in the United States protested the deal, arguing that Azerbaijan could use the satellite for military purposes, especially in connection with Baku’s long-standing efforts to regain control over Nagorno-Karabakh.
“The Obama Administration's business-as-usual attitude toward Azerbaijan effectively lends moral and material support to President Ilham Aliyev's increasingly loud and public threats to use every resource at his disposal to renew Baku's war against Nagorno-Karabakh,” said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA). “Americans should not be providing export financing, military support, or any other type of assistance to an unapologetically belligerent government that, in just the past few weeks, threatened to shoot down a civilian Armenian airliner.”
Azerbaijan, however, has given no indication that it intends to use the satellite for anything other than commercial communications. It will be operated by the Ministry of Communications, and Ex-Im Bank representatives said they examined the contract for the satellite and concluded that there would be no military application for the satellite. “Following a comprehensive review of the facts, consultation with relevant US Government agencies and a thorough evaluation of the project, Ex-Im Bank has determined that the Azerspace/Africasat 1A satellite does not represent a defense article,” wrote the bank's president and chairman, Fred Hochberg, in an April 26 letter to the ANCA.
“The satellite is not equipped with military-grade communications technology, it's going to be in a geosynchronous orbit, it's going to rebroadcast radio frequency messages that are on channels from the providers or senders to the end users via commercial frequency bands,” Phil Cogan, a spokesman for the bank, told EurasiaNet.org. “The government of Azerbaijan has notified us that the Ministry of Defense wasn't involved in the development, nor will it be engaged in the operation of this satellite.”
Satellite experts surveyed by EurasiaNet.org said that the line between commercial and military satellite communications is often blurry, and militaries can use commercial communications satellites, albeit not as effectively as they would satellites designed specifically for military applications. “There is no precise definition of a military communications satellite from a capability standpoint,” and much depends on individual countries' policies and laws, said Brian Weeden, a former US Air Force officer working on space issues, now a technical adviser at the Secure World Foundation, a space policy advocacy group.
The US military, for example, uses commercial communications satellites to control and get data from unmanned drones, and for secure military cell phone networks. And a country that has its own satellite, even a commercial one, could provide advantage to its military, said an Air Force officer who spoke to EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity. “You're guaranteed access, you're guaranteed communications,” the officer said.
Ex-Im Bank cannot release the details of the contract that ensure that it won't be used for military purposes, Cogan said. But he said that financing military projects violates the charter of the bank and that if it finds out that Azerbaijan is using the satellite for military purposes, they could take “recourse” against the country, without specifying what those measures are.
The satellite is scheduled to be launched toward the end of 2012 by the French company Arianespace, at its facility in French Guiana.
Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.
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