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A Habit of Distrust

Playing Catch-up, But Far Behind

May 30, 1999|Robert S. Norris | Robert S. Norris is a military analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council and coauthor of "British, French and Chinese Nuclear Weapons."

WASHINGTON — Last week, the long-anticipated Cox committee report on Chinese espionage was released. While Chinese pursuit of U.S. secrets has been on the front pages for the past few months, the 1,016-page report unleashed a frenzy worthy of the best Cold War scandals. No doubt Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) and his congressional colleagues see themselves as America's saviors, with a finger in the nuclear dike. Ignore for a moment the partisan undercurrents in this modern-day who-lost-China fever and put aside disagreements over President Bill Clinton's China policy. Let's just examine the report's main assertions.

Four are made about nuclear weapons: First, the Chinese have conducted a pervasive and successful penetration of U.S. nuclear-weapon laboratories for the past 20 years. Second, the secrets stolen were essential to China's modernization. Third, Chinese weapons are basically copies of ours. Finally, in highly inflammatory language, China is depicted as an emerging nuclear nemesis. Sounds pretty bad, but let's take a look at each claim.

The Central Intelligence Agency's April 21 damage assessment on Chinese spying is perhaps a better guide than the Cox report. It concludes: "China's technical advances have been made on the basis of classified and unclassified information derived from espionage, contact with U.S. and other countries' scientists, conferences and publications, unauthorized media disclosures, declassified weapons information and Chinese indigenous development. The relative contribution of each cannot be determined." The Cox report makes it seem as though everything the Chinese may have learned came from spying and not from Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine or the latest physics conference.

An extraordinary amount of information covering a wide range of technologies is available in the public domain, useful to Chinese, or anyone else for that matter. The basic concepts of nuclear weapons are widely known. Scientific secrets are neither absolute nor one nation's property.

It is somewhat arrogant, especially after the Iraqi experience, to believe other nations' scientists are incapable of building weapons of mass destruction. Unless interrupted for some reason, every nation that has set out to build a nuclear weapon has succeeded. Refinements soon follow. The tricks Chinese may or may not have learned from us about how to make a missile warhead lighter and more compact have been "discovered" by other nuclear powers. Chinese are traversing paths others have taken and would have eventually discovered the "tricks" on their own, given enough time and effort.

The Cox report is largely silent on the composition and character of China's nuclear forces. A comparison with the United States is instructive. The U.S. has some 10,000 nuclear weapons, of which more than 7,000 comprise the strategic arsenal (intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and bomber weapons of intercontinental range), theoretically capable of hitting any target in China with great precision. Chinese have roughly 20 ICBMs, known as the Dong Feng-5, capable of reaching the United States. This is a ration of 350 to 1.

Qualitatively, there is no comparison. The DF-5s are similar to U.S. Titan II missiles, first deployed in the early 1960s and retired in the early '80s. Chinese missiles take 24 hours to fuel and prepare for firing, carry one warhead, may not be reliable and are not that accurate. China has one ballistic-missile submarine; the U.S. has 18. China's submarine has never ventured beyond its regional waters and is basically too unsafe to operate. As for aircraft, China has no long-range aviation; its bombers are reverse-engineered Soviet planes from the 1950s.

To suggest, as the Cox report does, that Chinese weapons are mere copies ("on a par with our own") of U.S. weapons is absurd. There are no Chinese MX missiles, no B-2 bombers and no Trident submarines. As for copying the W-88 warhead, "It is a fact, " says Harold Agnew, director of Los Alamos in the 1970s, when the warhead was tested, "that scientists, especially those involved with the design of nuclear weapons, have always been reluctant to make 'Dutch' copies of other laboratories' designs. Ideas are welcome, but copying seldom, if ever, occurs."

Early on, China decided to have a modest arsenal of a few hundred warheads, even during the most difficult days of the Cold War, when it had both the Soviet Union and the United States as adversaries. While the two superpowers together built some 125,000 nuclear warheads, thousands of missiles, scores of bombers and dozens of submarines, China decided not to waste money in joining the race.

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