By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
This past November, the Chinese navy announced that its sole aircraft carrier was combat-ready. The carrier is built on a Soviet-era design and was half complete when the hull was purchased from a Ukrainian shipyard under less-than-legal circumstances. Currently, China has another carrier under construction that should be completed by the end of 2017.
It took just over 20 years for China to complete its first carrier, yet its second carrier will be built in just a fraction of that time. It’s difficult to overstate the role espionage has played in Chinese military modernization. Both the aircraft carriers and the fixed-wing aircraft used by the Chinese navy rely on technologies pilfered from other nations.
Further evidence of Chinese military advances due to espionage is visible in the training environment as well. Although the two aircraft carriers that China currently has use a “ski jump” ramp to launch aircraft, China constructed twin runways for training that use two different catapult systems.
One runway is a steam-powered catapult that was reverse-engineered from a scrapped Australian vessel acquired in 1985. The other is an electromagnetic system designed by the United States.
China Gained U.S. Naval Technology from a Defense Contractor Spy
The electromagnetic system is slated to be employed on the newest U.S. carrier once it’s launched in the near future. China gained this U.S. technology from its spy Chi Mak, a former employee of a U.S. defense contractor, nearly two decades ago.
Mak was convicted in 2008 under the Foreign Agents Registration Act and sentenced to 26 years in prison for his espionage, but the damage to U.S. national security was already done. Nine years after Mak’s conviction, China still benefits from his stolen secrets, and the arrest of Mak has done nothing to slow the espionage work orchestrated by Beijing.
Year after year, the Defense Security Service states in its annual report on technology collection trends that East Asia is the top collector of defense information. Though DSS doesn’t call China out by name in the report, the Foreign Economic Collection and Industrial Espionage report issued to Congress does. It is no surprise, therefore, that arrests of Chinese spies in the U.S. occur on a fairly regular basis.
In China’s defense modernization, we continually see replicas of Western military equipment. But there is another threat that doesn’t garner much attention because its visibility is diminished by secrecy.
Replicating a technology is one thing, but finding a countermeasure to U.S. or Western technical superiority is quite another. These advances go unseen, largely because they are often integrated into larger platforms. This makes analyzing certain aspects of Chinese defense capabilities difficult.
But not all countermeasures are obscure. In response to the U.S. ability to protect airpower via its numerous aircraft carriers, China repurposed ICBMs with conventional warheads to target these ships in an attempt to deny the U.S. access to the East and to the South China Sea.
The trick in targeting U.S. carriers was in tracking them. Chi Mak provided China with the vibrating frequency of most U.S. naval vessels, thus allowing Beijing to identify a type of vessel and its location.
China fields thousands of spies throughout international governments and industries, with the idea that sheer numbers of assets can acquire a vast amount of information. Should anyone be caught, there are plenty of others available to pick up the slack.
Chi Mak was just one individual and the damage he caused was immense. It’s vital that U.S. counterintelligence efforts continue to work and adapt to these challenges, not just from China but from other nations as well.