By Bradley Graham
But for many independent specialists on Chinese forces, the evidence so far does not amount to a credible case that China's military rockets are better prepared to strike at American cities as a direct windfall from U.S. participation in its satellite launching business.
"If there's anything we've given them, the gains have been incremental," said Paul Godwin, a National Defense University professor who specializes in Chinese security issues.
Members of Congress arguing that a damaging transfer of space-launch technology has occurred have had only fragments to go on. At the heart of the accusations is a classified report, based on an Air Force intelligence assessment, that is said to have concluded that U.S. security was harmed when engineers from Loral Space and Communications Ltd. gave the Chinese a technical study on the cause of the crash in 1996 of a Chinese rocket carrying an American satellite.
But defense officials have declined to make the report available to Congress, or elaborate publicly on what kind or how much damage was done to U.S. security, citing an ongoing Justice Department investigation into the case. Loral executives maintain that nothing in the study, which confirmed the findings of an earlier Chinese investigation blaming poor soldering in the guidance system, could be used to advance China's weaponry.
Although the administration's critics repeatedly have referred to the Pentagon report, queries by Washington Post reporters turned up no lawmaker who had read it. A staff member for Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said he had an opportunity to examine portions of it and confirmed its conclusion that U.S. national security had been harmed.
The absence of details has left the field open to heated assertions by politicians, pundits and others that Loral's action and, indeed, a decade of contacts between U.S. satellite makers and Chinese launchers have enabled China to make improvements in its small force of nuclear-tipped, ocean-spanning missiles.
China has had the ability to hit the United States with DF-4 and DF-5 intercontinental ballistic missiles for nearly two decades. But it has moved very slowly to improve or its arsenal of these liquid-fueled weapons, estimated to number 17 or 18, according to U.S. experts. Although new, mobile, solid-fueled DF-31 and DF-41 missiles are under development, U.S. specialists say China's military doctrine calls for maintaining only a small number of city-busting nuclear weapons rather than investing in many, high-precision missiles for taking out military installations in a first strike.
"Even if some U.S. technology transfer has occurred, enabling the Chinese to improve the accuracy of their missiles, it's not going to change their doctrine, which requires simply the ability to come within a mile or two of a U.S. city," said Bates Gill, a China specialist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. "I can't see how this latest development will change the strategic reality that Americans have been under from the Chinese for more than 15 years."
There is little dispute that some American know-how inevitably seeped across to the Chinese, despite strict rules covering what tech U.S. companies could share with the Chinese and despite the monitoring of contacts by U.S. Air Force specialists. The argument is over how much seepage occurred and whether any of it helped China improve its military rockets.
The basic case for linkage, according to those making it, comes in the similarity between China's Long March commercial boosters and its long-range missiles. The two have the same staging mechanisms, air frames, engines and propellants and employ similar payload separation procedures and guidance system hardware.
Republican lawmakers have seized on the Loral case to slam the Clinton administration for loosening controls on technology exports in 1996, when the government shifted licensing responsibility from the State Department to the Commerce Department, whose mission is to promote U.S. business interests abroad. U.S. companies still are required to obtain a presidential waiver to launch satellites on Chinese rockets.
Last week, Justice Department officials investigating the Loral case subpoenaed documents from the Pentagon's Defense Technology Security Administration (DTSA), which oversaw preparation of the report critical of Loral. The subpoena seeks documents relating to 11 presidential waivers covering all 20 U.S. satellite launches in China over the past decade as well as documents on the 1996 transfer of oversight responsibility from State to Commerce.
Providing one of the most specific lists of what China may have learned from U.S. contractors has been Henry Sokolski, who served as a senior defense official in the Bush administration. Writing in the Weekly Standard last week, Sokolski credited U.S. firms with showing China how to construct better "clean rooms" -- dust-free, climate-controlled areas -- that can be used, he said, for preparing not just satellites but also complex warhead packages prior to launch. He also cited U.S. help in improving the nose cone and attitude and engine controls on China's Long March rocket following two launch failures in 1992.
More recently, he suggested, Chinese advances in cushioning the vibration of rockets in order to carry more sensitive payloads -- including warhead systems -- stemmed from discussions with U.S. contractors. And he noted that while working with U.S. satellite makers, China developed a better dispenser for releasing more than one satellite from a single booster, a system easily adaptable to firing multiple warheads. China has experimented with such multiple independently targetable vehicle systems, or MIRVs, and may even have deployed them on some DF-5s, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
But even Sokolski acknowledged in an interview that he could not be certain how much assistance China received from U.S. firms, and how much the Chinese figured out on their own. "We're not going to find out if these things were avoidable or inevitable until we investigate," he said.
Several of the nation's leading specialists on China, including one with access to classified reports, dismissed Sokolski's suspicions as unfounded. They said whatever U.S. space launch technology and know-how might have been conveyed to the Chinese made little significant difference in China's military capabilities. In the case of MIRV technology, for instance, they noted that China began demonstrating this capability years before launching multiple U.S. satellites.
To the extent China has received outside assistance in military rocketry, it has come mostly from the Russians, the specialists said.
"Among those who look at Chinese military capabilities, there's a fairly strong degree of skepticism about the extent to which China's relationship with U.S. commercial satellite makers has resulted in significant advances in its long-range military missile capabilities," said Michael Swaine, a China security specialist with the Rand Corp.
Staff writers Guy Gugliotta, Walter Pincus and John Mintz contributed to this report.
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