Army weighs using RFID network partially owned by Chinese firm

The Army is considering using a radio frequency identification network in Pakistan that is partly owned by a Chinese company to track shipments to American forces in Afghanistan, according to internal briefing materials obtained by Government Executive.

The Defense Department has used RFID tags with a range of 300 feet to track movements of containers and pallets to U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as other forces globally.

The tags contain a computer chip that stores information about the cargo and an antenna that beams the information to RFID tag readers. From there, the information is passed to the Global Transportation Network operated by the U.S. Transportation Command. That network rides on the Defense's internal Non-Classified Internet Protocol Router Network.

Authorized users of the Global Transportation Network can "see" in real time the arrival and departure of container shipments. The overall system consists of 2,700 tag sites which read more than 134,000 tags a week, according to the briefing, issued by the Army Program Manager for Joint-Automatic Identification Technology.

But according to that briefing, Defense lacks the ability to read tags on shipments sent through Pakistani ports for onward movement by truck to Afghanistan "due to inability to obtain country clearance to install DoD fixed RFID infrastructure." The program manager's briefing said the Army intended to resolve that problem by using a commercial RFID infrastructure installed in Pakistan by a firm called Savi Networks. That company is a joint venture between Savi Technology, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, and Hutchinson Port Holdings, a subsidiary of Hutchison Whampoa Limited of Hong Kong, controlled by Chinese billionaire Li Ka Shing. Savi Technology owns 51 per cent of Savi Networks and Hutchinson 49 per cent, according to a 2005 press release announcing the partnership.

The Program Manager for Joint-Automatic Identification Technology briefing, done for the Navy this May, said it intended to modify its contract with Savi Technology to use the Savi Networks RFID infrastructure in Pakistan starting last Thursday.

But in response to a query from Government Executive, Air Force Maj. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said Defense "is still assessing whether to utilize a commercial solution for Pakistan … in accordance with DoD information assurance policy." Ownership of commercial infrastructure is a factor that needs to be carefully considered during the risk assessment process, Ryder said.

Mark Nelson, a spokesman for Savi Technology, said Defense should not have any concerns about the security or integrity of data riding over the Pakistan infrastructure, since Hutchinson is only a passive investor in Savi Networks.

But Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a Washington-based foundation, charged that Hutchinson is "a front for the Chinese government," citing a Central Intelligence Agency analysis from 1998 concluding that Li Ka Shing "is directly connected to Beijing and is willing to use his business influence to further the aims of the Chinese government."

Last month Defense issued its annual report on Chinese military capabilities to Congress, which included sections on increased use of information warfare. Philip Coyle, senior adviser for the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank focused on defense and security issues, said that if the Pentagon is "going to keep making China out to be an enemy, DoD should have security concerns about a Chinese-owned company running a U.S. Army information network."

The Center for Public Integrity estimated last month that the United States has provided the government of Pakistan with $5 billion in funding since 2001. Coyle said considering that level of funding, "it does seem odd that Pakistan won't allow a DoD network infrastructure, especially when what it is being used for is to track U.S. Army supplies."

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