Friday, October 07, 2011

More Chinese espionage, this time against Russia

Analysts tend to focus on Chinese espionage against its traditional adversaries, such as the US and Taiwan. But Beijing is increasingly stealing military secrets from its ally Russia, and now Moscow may be pushing back

Back in May I reported that China had allegedly stolen the design of the Russian-made 9K720 Iskander (SS-26 Stone)* short-range ballistic missile for its M20, adding that this followed upon repeated accusations by Russian defense firms in recent years that China was stealing Russian technology for military purposes.

It’s an open secret that in recent years relations between China and Russia, Beijing’s principal source of advanced weapons systems in recent decades, have soured, with Moscow becoming reluctant to sell Beijing its most advanced weapons. Part of this is the result of Moscow growing increasingly wary of China’s intentions as it gains strength, as well as Russian manufacturers’ inability to produce enough systems to satisfy the demand of both the Russian and Chinese militaries.

What is also troubling the relationship is growing evidence that China has been stealing military secrets from Russia and using that information to manufacture its own equivalents — only to turn those into cheaper export versions that threaten to edge Russian foreign military sales out of the market.

It now looks like China’s been at it again, this time trying to obtain classified information on the S-300PMU (SA-10 “Grumble”) long-range, high-altitude surface-to-air missile system. Although the arrest occurred on Oct. 28 last year, the Federal Security Service only made the news public this week, occurring as it does one week before Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin embarks on a state visit to China.

The suspect, identified as Tun Sheniyun (童中雲), allegedly worked as a translator for official delegations. Tun is said to have attempted to obtain technological and maintenance documents on the S-300PMU. He now faces a sentence of 10 to 20 years in jail for espionage.

Russia has sold S-300PMU, S-300PMU-1 (SA-20 “Gargoyle”) and S-300PMU-2 (SA-20B) units to China since 1993. China also manufactures a licensed copy of the S-300PMU-1 known as the HQ-10. The slightly less efficient HQ-9, of which China has an estimated 60 batteries, is a derivative of the S-300 and the US Patriot. (A variant of the HQ-9, known as the “Hai” HQ-9, or HHQ-9, is deployed on the PLA Navy’s Type-052C “Luyang II”-class destroyer.)

So why “steal” documentation when China already has the technology? Moscow claims China has been attempting to reverse-engineer the S-300 but that it may have hit a bottleneck and is trying to expedite the process by stealing extra documentation. What’s missing from the reports so far is that what Tun was likely trying to obtain was information on the S-300PMU-2, which is more advanced and has a longer range than the S-300/PMU-1 and the HQ-9/10.

* NATO appellation in parentheses


Mike Fagan said...

Michael... off-topic question (apologies - delete if appropriate), but I wonder whether you might have any thoughts (and of course, the time and inclination to express them here) on the railgun thing I raised a few weeks ago...

There are several aspects to consider...

First, there is the matter of politics. Let's leave that aside for now.

Second, there are the technical development challenges. The U.S. Navy's contractors already had several, minor proof-of-concept demonstrators operating before the Navy cancelled (insufficient funds).
The Navy concept was/is to eventually install the guns on new battleships and thereby render the aircraft carrier tactically obsolete (it is interesting to note that there are apparently already plans to scrap the Nimitz class a good 25 years early). The major development challenge for the Navy, in addition to the power, cooling and stress issues with the railgun itself, is the terminal guidance electronics for firing the projectiles over long-range distances of hundreds of kilometers (such that the guns could replace cruise missiles) - these electronics have to be able to withstand being launched at hypersonic speeds without being fried in the process.

For Taiwan, however, that long-range requirement would seem to be unnecessary as the guns would only be used in a defensive capacity to knock out incoming ballistic and (assuming sufficiently good radar) cruise missiles launched by the PLA. Terminal guidance electronics would seem unncessary over short ranges of a few tens of kilometres out across the Strait.

Then there are the questions of development time and costs, which of course are subordinate to the politics. Going on very rough comparisons though, I would think that if the program was started now, the guns could conceivably be ready for manufacture and deployment before a putative Tsai administration would be up for re-election in 2016. (It might also force her to reconsider her opposition to nuclear power - but that's of distant, secondary importance given the obvious solution of gas).

Naturally, I assume I am missing something, and of course, the inanities of politics could scupper such a project... but there doesn't seem to me, as a layman of course, any good reason why a railgun program would not be a realistic defense option.

Please... correct, or otherwise inform.

J. Michael Cole 寇謐將 said...

@Mike: We’ve touched on that briefly before, and I agree with you that a rail gun would be an interesting option for Taiwan. I’m not aware that the USN has abandoned the project altogether, spending US$211 million on R&D since 2005 and planning tests through 2017, with estimates on deployment sometime between 2020 and 2025.

If they can through enough megajoules into the system, theoretically the rail gun could provide defense against cruise and ballistic missiles, provided they have sufficient radar to track incoming objects. This has also been touted as a defensive capability for surface ships.

The costs are currently prohibitive, and I’m not sure the current administration would be willing to invest that money into a program whose benefits remain largely theoretical. That said, I think this is an area where the US and Taiwan could definitely collaborate, though the offensive angle of the rail gun makes that problematic politically, same as with cruise missile technology (longer ranges, smaller warheads).

I’m sure (or I hope) someone at MND or CSIST has given this some thought, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, for the moment at least, they adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Given its finite budget, Taiwan probably wants to focus on platforms with proven capabilities and for which there is the assurance they’ll be able to get training, spare parts and so on.

Given US projections, I think your 2016 estimate is too optimistic, but then again, who knows what Taiwanese scientists could come up with?

Mike Fagan said...

"Given US projections, I think your 2016 estimate is too optimistic..."

Different requirements. The USN want a long range, offensive weapon - which is what was behind much of the development problems. The chaps at Chung Shan would have to be looking at a short-range, purely defensive version, which means they don't need to bother about terminal guidance. Given that successful prototypes have already been up and running in the U.S. since 2008, I don't think it would be beyond Chung Shan to have a Taiwanese prototype on the go in relatively short order (assuming data and assitance from General Atomics, and of course funding).

Thanks for the reply.