The Bush administration is investigating whether China illegally converted Boeing commercial jetliners into a military surveillance aircraft in violation of U.S. export laws.
A Boeing 737 jetliner was photographed during a recent military exposition in Zhuhai, China, with what appeared to be a protruding radar dome, or “radome,” on the forward part of its fuselage. Authorities also are investigating a second photograph suggesting the modification of another jetliner.
“We have already begun looking into this matter,” said Eugene Cottilli, a spokesman for the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security.
If the Chinese modifications violate U.S. export rules, penalties could range from fines to the imposition of economic sanctions on China that would bar purchases of U.S. aircraft worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The radome is thought to house a special radar pod that monitors missile tests or might be used in military command and control operations, Bush administration officials said.
A State Department official involved in defense trade controls confirmed that the matter is under investigation. The official said commercial jets are permitted for export to China without a license, but that converting a civilian aircraft into a military jet is not allowed under U.S. export rules.
“It is unquestionably true that these jets could not have been sold to the Chinese military without a presidential waiver, which is very unlikely,” the official said.
In the case of China, all military sales have been blocked and any transfers require a presidential waiver of sanctions imposed after the 1989 military crackdown on unarmed protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the official said.
Investigators have contacted Boeing and are trying to further identify the modified jets shown in photographs through tail numbers.
A Boeing spokesman had no immediate comment. A Chinese Embassy spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Officials announced last week that at least six Chinese airlines will order 60 Boeing 7E7 Dreamliners — twin-aisle aircraft that can carry up to 296 passengers nearly 9,800 miles — a deal worth about $7.2 billion.
Boeing estimates that China will buy 2,400 new jet aircraft worth an estimated $197 billion over the next 20 years. Sanctions blocking China from purchasing U.S. jets would have a major economic impact, analysts said.
Boeing said 15 state-owned Chinese airlines have purchased a total of 170 Boeing 737s between 1983 and 2004. An additional 46 are on order.
Richard Fisher, a specialist on the Chinese military, identified the suspected jet conversion in Zhuhai during a video presentation by the Xian Aircraft Group, which makes Chinese H-6 bombers.
“There is a distinct possibility that China has illegally modified a U.S.-made transport aircraft to perform military missions,” said Mr. Fisher, vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Mr. Fisher said specialists think China is using the radome and other special antennas on two Boeing 737s to monitor tests of its long-range land attack cruise missile that is in development.
A third photograph on a Chinese Web site also showed a 737 that appeared modified for military surveillance. The modified jets also could be used for “military electronic surveillance missions” or airborne command posts, Mr. Fisher said.
“I can’t imagine the U.S. government approving the conversion of a U.S. jet for monitoring a new strategic long-range land attack missile,” he said.
The Pentagon thinks China is building a long-range cruise missile that could be outfitted with both conventional and nuclear warheads that is modeled after the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk.
Mr. Fisher said that if the Bush administration secretly approved the modifications to the 737, it would undermine efforts to prevent the European Union from lifting its arms embargo on China. The administration also is pressing Israel not to send Israeli-made anti-radar missile drones to China.
“If it were known that the United States acquiesced to China’s possible illegal military modification of a Boeing 737, it could be used to undermine Washington’s appeals in Europe and Israel,” Mr. Fisher said.