China's hi-tech military disaster
Michael Sheridan, Far East Correspondent
Bid to copy Israeli electronics kills experts
A DULL boom shook the misty bamboo forests of Guangde county, 125 miles southwest of Shanghai, last Sunday, and a plume of smoke rose in the sky, causing Chinese villagers to look up in alarm from their tasks.
Within 24 hours China officially admitted that a “military aircraft” had crashed, that President Hu Jintao had ordered an investigation and that state honours would be bestowed on the victims.
Security teams sealed off the area, carting away the charred remains of 40 people and collecting wreckage with painstaking care. It looked like a routine military accident.
In fact the crash would reverberate all the way to Washington and Tel Aviv, revealing details of a covert Chinese espionage effort to copy Israeli technology in an attempt to match the United States in any future air and sea battle.
The first clues were given by two Chinese-controlled newspapers in Hong Kong, Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po. On Monday they printed articles disclosing that the plane was a Chinese version of the formidable Airborne Warning and Control System (Awacs) aircraft flown by the United States to manage air, sea and land battles.
They indicated that it was a Russian Ilyushin four-engined cargo jet, rebuilt to house a conspicuous array of radars and codenamed KJ-2000. The doomed flight, they implied, had been a test mission.
The disaster robbed China of 35 of its best electronic warfare technicians, according to sources in Hong Kong. There were also five crew members on board.
With memories fresh in Beijing of a Boeing 767 bought for the use of former president Jiang Zemin and found to be riddled with eavesdropping devices, there were bound to be suspicions of sabotage.
The Communist party showed how seriously it took the crash by entrusting the inquiry to Guo Boxiong, vice-chairman of the party’s central military commission, who handles sensitive security matters.
It was without question a calamity for the Chinese military. But for the Americans, who lost a spy plane forced down by a Chinese interceptor jet in 2000, it was not a cause for sincere mourning. The US Seventh Fleet is ranged off the Chinese coast, in constant contact with Chinese planes and submarines probing its readiness to defend the self-ruled democracy on Taiwan.
Both America and Taiwan spend undisclosed billions trying to penetrate the wall of secrecy that surrounds China’s military build-up, which was criticised once again last week by Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary.
Spies from Taiwan are known to have scored remarkable successes. In one recent case reported by The Washington Post, they placed in their president’s hands the proceedings of a secret standing committee meeting on Taiwan policy within days of its taking place.
American intelligence, by contrast, concentrates on a war fought with science and stealth to preserve its technological advantage.
For as long as the Chinese have tried to buy, steal or copy high-grade military technology — at least since the early 1990s — the CIA and the White House have sought to frustrate them. China relies on foreign know-how. British propellers from the Dowty company are fitted to its Y-8 early warning aircraft and radars made by Racal Electronics are installed on its naval surveillance planes.
But the crown jewels of electronic warfare are made in America, which means that China’s hunger for secrets can be exploited by its foes. Late in the cold war, the CIA supplied faulty computer items to the Soviets, which resulted in death and destruction. So suspicions of treachery in Beijing are bound to be reinforced by the tale of intrigue and deception that unfolded upon examination of what led to the fatal end of the KJ-2000.
“The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] air force and navy have long required airborne early warning aircraft,” stated a report by the US Congressional Research Service in November 2001. “Each is looking for 8-10 aircraft to supplement their own unsuccessful efforts.”
In 1999 the Chinese thought they had the perfect deal. A Russian Ilyushin-76 transport, serial number #762, was bought and flown to a military airfield in Israel, where it was fitted with the world’s most advanced Awacs system, the Phalcon, perfected by technicians at Israel Aircraft Industries. The cost: $250m (£135m).
Inevitably, the CIA heard of the deal and the issue went all the way to the White House, which exerted tremendous pressure on Israel.
On July 11, 2000, Ehud Barak, then the Israeli prime minister, broke off from peace talks at Camp David to tell President Bill Clinton that the sale had been cancelled. Barak confided that he had sent a personal letter of regret to Jiang Zemin.
But Chinese persistence ensured the matter did not end there. In 2002, according to aviation specialist websites, aircraft #762, stripped of the Phalcon system, was flown from Israel back to Russia and on to an airfield in east China that is home to the Nanjing Research Institute of Technology.
Moreover, the Chinese technicians had not wasted their time in Israel. “It’s not unreasonable to believe that the Israelis offered the Chinese industrial participation to seal this high dollar deal,” said a US Department of Defence analyst, quoted in a report for the US Army War College.
“The Phalcon system makes extensive use of commercial off-the-shelf products, which gives easy access to the basic building blocks of the system,” the unnamed analyst added.
In 2003 aviation specialists photographed two IL-76 Awacs prototypes, by then codenamed KJ-2000, on test flights over Nanjing. One was #762, the other was coded B-4040.
Late last year the local aviation authorities — which in China are controlled by the military — bought sophisticated Monopulse secondary surveillance radars from Telephonics Corp, a New York-based subsidiary of the Griffon Corporation, which supplies the US Awacs fleet.
The radars were due for delivery early in 2006. Their purpose was stated to be civil aviation, but critics in Congress say the Chinese buy such items for “dual use” in military systems.
According to specifications published by the Federation of American Scientists, such radars can be closely integrated with an Awacs plane to enhance targets. There is now speculation among military and aviation attachés in the region that the ill-fated KJ-2000 may have been testing a hitherto unproven technical capability of precisely this nature when it crashed.
That should provide more than enough questions for Vice-Chairman Guo and his bloodhounds from the military commission to get their teeth into.