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Chinese Espionage? Much Fuss About Not Much

Author: Flora Lewis
Related Bio: Richard L. Garwin
June 18, 1999
International Herald Tribune


PARIS - A toxic cloud of speculation, exaggeration and some sheer falsehoods was released by the report of Chinese spying on American nuclear secrets. Sorting out information from feverish dramatization, nuclear strategy from political agitation, is complex and necessary.

The official U.S. intelligence "damage assessment" warns that China "probably accelerated its program to develop future nuclear weapons" as a result of a vast collection of espionage.

But it also says: "We cannot determine the full extent of weapons information obtained. For example, we do not know whether any weapon design or documentation or blueprints were acquired ... To date, the aggressive Chinese collection effort has not resulted in any apparent modernization of their deployed strategic force or any new nuclear weapons development."

In other words, as a veteran American atomic scientist points out, it is certainly not true that China "leaped" from a modest capability to reach a par of sophistication with the U.S. weapons program "by theft," as some commentators and politicians claim.

The Chinese have followed their own program and not copied American developments dictated by U.S. arms race strategy, although they probably benefited from finding out what not to do as they learned about American experimental dead ends.

The secrets of two very sensitive warheads which the Chinese are said to have stolen from the Los Alamos laboratory are not for weapons that they are likely to want to make, regardless of how much detail they may have acquired.

One, the W-70 thermonuclear warhead, the "neutron bomb," was developed by the United States for two kinds of weapons.

Although the Cox report on the spying (which contains a number of other errors) states flatly that the United States "has never deployed a neutron weapon," it did indeed. A tactical missile and an 8-inch (203-mm) artillery shell were deployed for the purpose of countering massive tank formations in Europe, to kill the troops by radiation without blasting the whole countryside.

Another version, the W-66, was deployed on Sprint anti-missile missiles as part of the Grand Forks, North Dakota, missile defense system.

The Chinese are not planning an outer-space missile defense, which is probably much too expensive even for the United States if it is feasible, and they have no reason to develop neutron bombs instead of the cheaper, more destructive ones they have.

The second special type is the W-88, a slim-nosed vehicle that tapers in a cone in order to give it maximum target accuracy regardless of winds. It matters for the United States, with a program of thousands of missiles, to be able to destroy enemy weapons in their hardened silos. China, with its small arsenal, cannot count on taking out protected missiles but can target cities and industrial sites just as effectively without the expensive refinements.

This information, and a good deal more, is contained in a letter from Richard Garwin, a physicist who has been closely involved in the U.S. nuclear program since 1950, to the journal Arms Control Today. Other scientists have written in various places about other aspects of the catastrophe claims, which they reject.

None suggest that America does not need to do a better job of protecting those secrets that it really needs to keep. But there are serious arguments about which secrets matter and why there are advantages to being more open, and how much damage may actually have been done. It is not at all as cut-and-dried as published accounts suggested.

So it seems that something else is going on here. One veiled target is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, signed in 1996 but still impounded without ratification in the Senate. There are critics who insist that a $4.5 billion annual "stewardship" program is unnecessary to keep American force reliable if there are no more tests, and critics who just want to kill the treaty, which is considered an enormous help to blocking nuclear proliferation.

There is a general, scatter-shot anti-China campaign which hops from military warnings to trade objections to diplomatic attack, seemingly more concerned with promoting China to the status of new first enemy than with any specific issue to take up with Beijing. This is not to say that there are not good reasons to be wary, but rather that wariness without specifics is a weak, self-harming policy.

And then there is just plain partisan politics, gearing up for the presidential election.

Espionage makes lurid headlines, but it usually has much less effect than is supposed. The several scientists who challenge the implications of the Cox report suggest that some healthy skepticism is in place here. Don't believe all you read, or all you hear from a congressional committee.

(c) Copyright 1999