Saturday, May 11, 2013

China and Western weapons technology

I'm cynically amused by the upswell in condemnation of China for its industrial and military espionage in the US, particularly its activities in cyberspace.  Foreign Policy recently published details of a whole raft of cases and incidents.  Here's an excerpt.

Chinese hackers reportedly broke into the networks of defense contractors working on the F-35 (including Lockheed Martin, maker of both the F-35 and F-22). In an interesting coincidence, China revealed its J-20 stealth jet in late 2010 boasting a nose section that looks a lot like the F-22's, right down to parts of the canopy design and what might be a 3-D heads up display.  Then, last year, China unveiled its second stealthy fighter, the J-31. That plane bears a way-too-close-for-comfort resemblance to the F-22 and the F-35. (Last year, a U.S. Air Force official pointed out that the F-35's computerized maintenance system containing tons of information about the jet had to be redesigned after it was found to be vulnerable to hackers.)

. . .

Then there's the case of U.S. defense giant General Electric's partnership with China's state-owned aviation firm COMAC -- a program aimed at developing digital avionics for China's first domestically made jetliner, the COMAC 919 (shown below).  GE came under fire from Virginia congressman Randy Forbes, who claimed the technology used to develop next-generation airliner avionics was inked to the same technology used in the U.S. Air Force's premier fighter, the F-22. Forbes worried that sharing information on even a civilian version of these avionics would allow China to develop them for military use. The deal remains on, but given the news we've heard in the last year or so about Chinese hackers, one hopes that GE is being extra vigilant in protecting its most sensitive information.

The predecessor of the avionics deal is GE's partnership with AVIC (COMAC's parent firm) to develop modern jet engines in China. It might seem like decades-old technology, but building jet engines, especially those used in 21st-century fighter jets, are one of the toughest engineering challenges in aviation. AVIC has partnered with GE in an attempt to develop engines capable of powering large aircraft: from civilian jetliners to military transports, radar planes to bombers. As U.S. Naval War College professor Andrew Erickson has said, these joint ventures could "give the Chinese aerospace industry a 100 piece puzzle with 90 of the pieces already assembled. Enough is left out so that the exporting companies can comply with the letter of the export control laws, but in reality, a rising military power is potentially being given relatively low-cost recipes for building the jet engines needed to power key military power projection platforms."

There's more at the link.

What's amusing is that people are surprised by this.  Espionage, whether overt or covert, has always been a big part of weapons development programs.  Sometimes it's not so much espionage as wholesale looting, as the US did after World War II, when technology it 'obtained' from defeated Nazi Germany had a lasting influence on US aerospace development.  (See, for example, the redesign of the North American F-86 Sabre and the Boeing B-47 Stratojet to take advantage of German swept wing technology, or the 'importation' of Wernher von Braun and his design team, plus a large number of captured V-2 rockets, that were the foundation of the Saturn V rocket and the Apollo missions to the moon.)  The Soviet Union, Britain and France did likewise.

The East and West blocs continued to spy on each other during the Cold War.  Many Soviet systems were obviously based on Western designs (the most visually obvious being aeronautical, including the Tu-4 bomber, a virtual carbon copy of the US B-29;  the Tu-144 supersonic transport, clearly patterned after the Anglo-French Concorde;  and the Buran space shuttle).  Similarly, a number of Western designs incorporated 'lessons learned' from the East (for example, Soviet space technology initially outpaced that of the USA, although it was rapidly overtaken;  Soviet surveillance technology was - and still is - widely used in the West;  and towards the end of the Cold War, much Soviet technology was licensed to Western firms.)

Other nations have been equally active in stealing the secrets of other nations.  Even allies of the USA have done this:  for example, Israel's very advanced defense industry has learned much (legally and illegally) from US companies and other sources, and incorporated their technology into its products.  Examples that have made the news include the Lavi fighter-bomber of the 1980's, visibly modeled after the F-16 (already flying with Israel's Air Force), and the Phalcon airborne early warning and control radar system of the 1990's.  Equally, much Israeli technology is in service with the US armed forces - for example, the LITENING targeting pod.  South Africa labored under the burden of a United Nations arms embargo from 1977-1994, but that didn't stop it from obtaining almost everything it needed from foreign suppliers, either buying it or stealing it.  I wrote about this in a three article series on South Africa's aircraft industry, particularly in the last of those articles.  A lot of Israeli and South African technology is now evident in Chinese designs, as I pointed out.

Furthermore, you may be sure that right now, the US is trying very hard to obtain information about weapons systems all over the world, both those being built by potential enemies such as China, and those being built by its allies.  To take just one example, the reason foreign air forces are invited to fly with US combat planes over US soil in international exercises isn't purely altruistic - the USA gets the opportunity to evaluate their aircraft in depth, analyze their electronic signatures, and test their capabilities under operational conditions.  If you think that information doesn't get back to US aircraft manufacturers, who in turn use it in their efforts to sell their planes on the international market in competition against those same foreign aircraft, I have this bridge I'd like to sell you . . .  Furthermore, when US companies partner with foreign firms to part-manufacture and assemble US aircraft in their countries, or help them to develop their own aircraft, this also enables the former to learn more about the latters' capabilities, and what they're doing with them.

China is merely doing to America what America has done to China (and every other advanced economy) ever since the first purloined letter was steamed open and read by unauthorized eyes.  There's nothing new under the sun.  If US companies and agencies are too short-sighted (or just plain stupid) to secure their data against such unwanted intrusions, it's their fault.



The Great and Powerful Oz said...

I think letting the Chinese have information about the F-35 is an excellent idea. Let's see how many trillions of dollars they will pour down that rabbit hole.

Jones said...

There is also the concept of Convergent Engineering... two separate groups of engineers given the same set of end-user requirements will probably come up with very similar solutions.

trailbee said...

But, there is something I didn't know until yesterday - and that is the great amount of weapons Germany is selling and shipping to the Middle East. I watched a video, The Whirlwind, made by Gerald Fleury of The (Philadelphia) Trumpet which is worth watching. It could be China is going to be small potatoes compared to what is slowly making its way from Europe.

Old Surfer said...

I'd say the fact that GE's ceo is in Obama's pocket, or maybe the other way round, is a bit worrysome!