By Michael Sheridan
Far East Correspondent
The Sunday Times
June 11, 2006
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
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=92s
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
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 (=A3135m).
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
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
"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 attach=E9s 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
Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.
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