A confrontation between U.S. and Chinese fighter jets would find China equipped with weapons rooted in American technology and sent via Israel, military analysts say.
The White House is weighing the dramatic military move of providing fighter escorts for the normally solo EP-3E surveillance planes that routinely fly near the Chinese coastline in international airspace. When U.S. pilots are briefed on potential threats, they will study Chinese air-and land-based missiles that, weapons specialists say, could not have reached full potential without American know-how.
Chinese fighters carry Israels potent Python 3 heat-seeking missile, a weapon painstakingly developed by Israel based on the venerable Sidewinder missile that the United States sold to the Jewish states decades ago, say former intelligence officials. Reconnaissance photographs of Chinese F-8 fighters intercepting, and in some cases harassing, U.S. patrol planes clearly show the fast, short-range Pythons affixed under the fighters wings.
China has bought the rights to domestically produce the Python 3, an early 1990s transaction that the Pentagon says it learned of only after the fact. “I think we would have preferred to know in advance, but we didnt get that,” said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, the Defense Departments chief spokesman, expressing Washingtons latest irritation with Israel over arms deals with communist China.
Richard Fisher, a China analyst with the Jamestown Foundation who is writing a book about the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), has traced the Pythons maturation.
‘The first of the Israeli Python family of missiles was the American Sidewinder,” said Mr. Fisher, a former aide to Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican. Mr. Cox led a 1999 congressional commission that concluded China was engaged in an extensive campaign to steal U.S. military secrets and technology.
“The Python 3 is completely different than the Sidewinder series, Mr. Fisher said. “But without being able to copy the Sidewinder, the Israelis would not have been able to develop and produce the Python.”
The April 1 emergency landing of the Navy EP-3E surveillance plane, after a Python-armed Chinese F-8 fighter flew into its propeller, once again has thrown the spotlight on the Israel-China arms connection.
Larry M. Wortzel, a former U.S. military attache in Beijing and now an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said the Israel-China arms channel has flowed for more than 50 years. “It grew and grew, and the United States just winked at a number of serious transfers,” he said.
“China is benefiting from reverse-engineering American technology provided to Israel,” added Mr. Wortzel, a retired Army colonel who says he saw evidence of improper transfers while a counterintelligence officer in the 1980s.
When photographs surfaced of the Python 3 dogfight missile, it spurred China analysts to recall other Israeli sales — or purported transfers — of U.S. know-how to Beijing.
None matched the seriousness of a 1992 U.S. intelligence report that said Israel, in the immediate aftermath of the Persian Gulf war, transferred Patriot anti-missile data to China. The United States had given Patriots to Israel for protection against Iraqi Scud missile attacks. Tel Aviv vehemently denied the intelligence report, first disclosed by The Washington Times. In fact, Israel has denied several other accusations that it violated agreements by exporting restricted American technology it buys with yearly U.S. subsidies.
Richard B. Cheney, the defense secretary at the time, said he had ‘good reason” to believe the Patriot diversion occurred. The Pentagons Defense Intelligence Agency compiled evidence substantiating the transfer. Yet a special State Department team said it could find no evidence that Israel, a close ally of Washington and beneficiary of $3 billion annually in U.S. economic and military aid, sold China Patriot secrets.
To this day, intelligence analysts in and out of government continue to stress that the transfer occurred.
Mr. Fisher believes advanced technology from the Patriot, a ground-based anti-aircraft and anti-missile interceptor, found its way into Chinas new advanced surface-to-air missiles now on watch. He also believes the PLA used illicit Patriot data to improve M-9 short-range missiles aimed at Taiwan, which China views as a breakaway republic and has vowed to reincorporate with the mainland — by force if necessary.
“They used the information from the Patriot for the M-9 to be able to evade Patriot interception,” Mr. Fisher said. Taiwan operates Patriot batteries.
“Obtaining foreign technology and reverse-engineering technology is fundamental to the ongoing military modernization program,” he added. “Theyre looking to reverse-engineer advanced military technology from wherever they can get it.”
Not long after the Patriot brouhaha subsided, Israel again was denying charges that it illegally exported U.S. technology to the communist regime in Beijing. This time, the suspicions revolved around the ill-fated Lavi fighter. Israel spent more than $1 billion in U.S. aid on the aircraft, which was based on the U.S. F-16 Falcon. After Israel ditched the program at Washingtons insistence, intelligence reports said Tel Aviv was selling the F-16 avionics technology to China for incorporation into that countrys new F-10 ground-attack fighter.
The Cox report confirmed the suspicion in 1999, stating, “Significant transfers of U.S. military technology have also taken place in the mid-1990s through the re-export by Israel of advanced technology transferred to it by the United States, including avionics and missile guidance useful for the PLAs F-10 fighter.”
One of Israels most detailed explanations of its arms policies came last year in an op-ed article in The Washington Times by Lenny Ben-David, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy here.
“Israels ties with China do not and will not come at the expense of American national interests,” Mr. Ben-David wrote. “Israel will not permit that to happen.”
He added: “A strong indigenous Israeli arms industry is vital to Israels national interest.”
His column was prompted by another heated debate on the Israel-China connection — this one over Israel Aircraft Industries planned sale of the Phalcon early warning radar system that would be fitted inside Chinese patrol jets.
The Clinton administration objected. It feared a system much like the U.S. AWACS “over-the-horizon” radars would increase the danger to American aircraft that one day might be forced to confront China in defense of Taiwan. Israel denied Washingtons suspicions that U.S. technology was incorporated into Phalcon. Nonetheless, Tel Aviv canceled a deal potentially worth $2 billion in the long term, as some in Congress threatened to withhold aid.
Mr. Wortzel said the Reagan administration approved limited arms sales to China during the Cold War to offset Soviet military buildups. However, he said successive White Houses never have condoned the illegal transfer of high-technology items meant for Israels use only.
“It didnt upset the security balance in the region. But now it does,” he said. “I think Chinas behavior has changed. China now has the advantage of some of the best American-provided technology that it may use against the United States or certainly against Taiwan.”