U.S. intelligence agencies recently increased their knowledge of China’s covert biological weapons program with the help of a defector from the People’s Liberation Army, according to people familiar with the incident.
The defector escaped from China and traveled to Europe, where he is under the protection of a European government security service, according to the sources. The PLA defector believes that Chinese intelligence has penetrated the U.S. government and is therefore wary of cooperating with the CIA and other Western spy agencies.
Still, the defector has provided some information about China’s biological arms program that has reached the U.S. government. No other details of the defection could be learned.
However, the defector is the second person from China to provide information about Chinese biological research with potential weapons applications.
Chinese virologist Yan Li-meng fled to the United States from Hong Kong this spring and charged in news interviews that the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic was manufactured in the Wuhan Institute of Virology and appears to be designed from two viruses stored in a PLA laboratory.
The State Department provided new details about China’s covert biological weapons program in a recent report on arms compliance.
“The United States has compliance concerns with respect to Chinese military medical institutions’ toxin research and development because of the potential dual-use applications and their potential as a biological threat,” the report said. “In addition, the United States does not have sufficient information to determine whether China eliminated its assessed biological warfare program, as required under Article II of the [Biological Weapons] Convention.”
A senior Trump administration official in May disclosed that China is working in secret on biological weapons, including arms capable of targeting specific ethnic groups with pathogens.
“We are looking at potential biological experiments on ethnic minorities,” the official said.
Chinese military publications since 2017 have described biology as a new domain of warfare, and one report warned that a future war could involve “ethnic genetic attacks.”
ESPER ON SPACE THREATS
Defense Secretary Mark Esper is warning that China and Russia have militarized space and that any future conflicts will involve space warfare.
“In the years ahead, wars will be fought not just on land and sea as they have for thousands of years, or in the air as they have for the past century, but also in outer space and cyberspace in unprecedented ways,” Mr. Esper said in a speech Wednesday.
To be ready, the U.S. military needs to modernize its forces for high-intensity conflict, he said.
The Air Force has had high-tech military advantages, but China and Russia are catching up.
“Our near-peer rivals, China and Russia, seek to erode our long-standing dominance in air power through long-range fires, anti-access aerial denial systems and other asymmetric capabilities designed to counter our strengths,” Mr. Esper said.
The defense secretary warned that China and Russia have turned space, once a peaceful arena, into “a warfighting domain.”
“They have weaponized space through killer satellites, directed-energy weapons and more in an effort to exploit our systems and chip away at our military advantage,” Mr. Esper said.
China recently tested a reusable space plane that placed an unknown object into orbit.
Beijing also has rapidly developed an array of space warfare capabilities, including several types of ground-launched anti-satellite missiles capable of hitting satellites in different orbits; ground-based lasers that can blind or damage orbiting satellites; and small robotic satellites capable of maneuvering and grabbing orbiting satellites.
Russia also has developed anti-satellite missiles and ground-based anti-satellite lasers.
By contrast, the Pentagon’s new Space Force has a single announced weapon system: an electronic jammer capable of disrupting satellite communications.
Mr. Esper said the X-37 space plane is one of the systems that will enhance high-technology military capabilities, the first time the secretive reusable spacecraft has been mentioned as part of military defenses.
The X-37 has conducted six missions and is currently in orbit. The craft is capable of conducting space defense and offense operations, U.S. officials have said.
Mr. Esper said U.S. military power in the future will be depend on maintaining superiority in what he called “the ultimate high ground.”
To address space warfare, the Trump administration created the Space Command, a unified combatant command, and the Space Force, which will develop a cadre of space warriors, he said.
CHINA’S ‘NO FIRST USE’ POLICY IN DOUBT
The commander of the Strategic Command, the military unit in charge of nuclear war fighting, said China is in the midst of a major nuclear buildup that will double the size of its nuclear warhead stockpile, currently assessed as in the low 200s, over the next 10 years.
China has long said it would not be the first to use nuclear arms in a conflict, but its buildup of forces appears to be preparing for a launch-on-warning capability similar to that of the United States and Russia.
Adm. Charles A. “Chas” Richard, the Stratcom commander, spoke with reporters this week and questioned whether the “no first use” pledge is a strategic deception by Beijing.
“As a military commander, what I look at more is another nation’s capabilities, less about what their stated intentions are, and I see China developing a stack of capabilities that would be inconsistent with a no first use policy,” he said. Chinese nuclear forces “certainly have the capabilities to execute any number of deterrent or employment strategies that are seemingly inconsistent with a no first use policy.”
China has deployed thousands of long-range missiles in a variety of basing modes, including in silos, on road- and rail-mobile launchers, and on submarines.
Beijing, according to the Pentagon’s latest annual report on the Chinese military, is also developing a bomber-launched ballistic missile. A new DF-41 missile is being deployed with multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRVs.
Asked about current JL-2 missiles that cannot reach the United States unless they are closer to U.S. shores, Adm. Richard said: “Well, what I would offer is to not shoot behind the duck, and I would actually pay more attention to the JL-3 missiles that they’re working on, which give them a greatly expanded range.”
The JL-3 will be deployed on newer ballistic missile submarines and will provide greater strike capabilities.
China’s strategic power cannot be measured by its warhead stockpile alone, the admiral argued.
“You have to look at the totality of it, the delivery systems, what they’re capable of, what their readiness is,” Adm. Richard said.
Adm. Richard spoke from the Omaha-based command in charge of nuclear forces that include land-based Minuteman missile fields in the western United States; a strategic bomber force at bases around the countries; and nuclear missile submarines always at sea.
Russia also is building up nuclear and conventional forces. Both Moscow and Beijing are seeking to outpace U.S. forces, he noted.
“We are on a trajectory for the first time in our nation’s history to face two peer nuclear-capable competitors who have to be deterred differently, and we’re working very hard to meet that challenge,” Adm. Richard said.
Russia is building up its forces with new nuclear and conventional weapons, counterspace arms, cyberweapons and new hypersonic missiles. Moscow also is waging “gray zone” warfare below the level of kinetic conflict.
Adm. Richard declined to comment when asked about President Trump‘s comments to author Bob Woodward that the United States is developing a powerful secret nuclear weapon.
The four-star admiral also said his forces remain “mission capable” for a conflict despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Troops of the command had to adapt to the pandemic conditions, Adm. Richard said without specifying what steps were taken.
“Bottom line here is we’re ready,” he said. “And why is that important? It’s important for us to remember that throughout this challenge of COVID-19, no threats went away, right? Nothing else changed, no one gave up a single nuclear weapon based on the fact of COVID-19. In fact, it’s going in the other direction.”
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.