Chinese Nuclear Espionage: Is the Hysteria Warranted?

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The Cox Committee finally released its long-awaited report detailing U.S. losses of technology through Chinese espionage and launching of U.S. satellites. The report, and much of the ensuing frenzy in the press, focused on what technology was lost, how the Chinese obtained it and whether the Clinton administration was negligent about stanching the flow of secrets. Almost no attention has been given to the most important issue--the specific ill-effects on U.S. security of such technology transfers. Those effects are very likely overblown.

Conservative Republicans--looking for a new enemy to fight after the ColdWar --have fed the media hype by making the questionable assertion thatthisis the worst case of espionage in U.S. history. The conservatives seem tohave forgotten that in the late 1940s Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall gave theSoviets the atomic bomb. Any technology the Chinese have obtained merelyimproves that country's arsenal of long-range nuclear missiles that canalready hit U.S. cities.

The Cox Committee asserts boldly that "the stolen U.S. secrets have helpedthe PRC fabricate and successfully test modern strategic thermonuclearweapons," but little evidence is provided. To date, the Chinese havefielded no weapons that contain U.S. technologies. The committee also"judges that the PRC's next generation of thermonuclear weapons, currentlyunder development, will exploit elements of the stolen U.S. designinformation." That statement may be proven true, but the key issue is theextent of that exploitation. The Central Intelligence Agency was unable todetermine what proportion of the information the Chinese obtained wasstolen(versus what was gathered from open sources) and what effect theinformationhad on Chinese advances in warhead design. Buried in the Cox Committeereport is an admission that the CIA's conclusion is correct: "Assessingtheextent to which design information losses accelerated the PRC's nuclearweapons development is complicated because so much is unknown. The fullextent of U.S. information that the PRC acquired and the sophistication ofthe PRC's indigenous design capabilities are unclear." Howard T. Hawkins,second in command at the Los Alamos nonproliferation and internationalsecurity office and a student of the Chinese nuclear force, sees no sign ofsubstantial improvements in the Chinese arsenal that are based on U.S.nuclear data.

Rep. Norman Dicks of Washington, the committee's ranking minoritymember--echoing the opinion of many experts--astutely observed that theChinese record of success in incorporating foreign technology into weaponshas not been good. The Cox report provides an illustration: Chinarequiredover 30 years to field its present liquid-fueled intercontinental ballisticmissile--even after emigrating members of the U.S. design team for theTitanmissile program in the 1950s illegally gave the Chinese U.S. technology onwhich the missile was based.

Another committee member, John Spratt (D-S.C.), also distanced himselffromone of the major conclusions of the report: "The stolen U.S. nuclearsecrets give the PRC design information on thermonuclear weapons on a parwith our own." Spratt objected to that statement and noted that the UnitedStates has had much more experience than China has had building nuclearweapons (30,000 versus a few hundred) and testing them (about 1,100 testsversus 50).

At the news conference held to release the report, Dicks and Sprattadmitted that the committee's conclusions were written using a "worst case"scenario. They defended that approach as a way to sound the alarm and thenquickly tried to "put the report in perspective." Unfortunately, truth isbetter than scare tactics, and written words have longer lives than oralcaveats after the fact.

Even if China did steal all of the secrets the committee cited and iseventually able to successfully incorporate the technology, the Chinesemilitary would need to dramatically expand its small nuclear arsenal andabandon its defensive nuclear doctrine of minimum deterrence to pose asubstantially increased threat to the United States. (Stretched thin bytheneed to support a bloated, sagging and antiquated military, China's modestfunding for defense--$35 billion per year compared with the U.S. defensebudget of $290 billion--may not be able to support a nuclear breakout.)During and after the Cold War, the Chinese eschewed the U.S.-Soviet nucleararms race and chose instead to build a small retaliatory nuclear force (nowabout two dozen warheads) that could hit an opponent's cities. Incontrast,the United States and Russia still have offensive nuclear forces (more than6,000 strategic warheads each) primarily designed to destroy the othernation's missiles in their hardened silos. According to Hawkins, givenChina's current nuclear doctrine, even the crown jewel of the U.S.arsenal--the silo-busting W-88 warhead--will provide China with minimalgains.

Strangely, the Cox report, in a conclusion that was not highlighted, saysit best: "Although the United States has been the victim of systematicespionage successfully targeted against our most advanced nuclear weaponsdesigns--and although the Select Committee judges that the PRC will exploitelements of those designs for its new generation ICBMs--the United Statesretains overwhelming qualitative and quantitative advantage in deployedstrategic nuclear forces." Despite the current hysteria about Chineseespionage, that vast U.S. nuclear superiority is likely to continue for theforeseeable future.