American technology boosts China's hypersonic missile program
The Washington Post October 17, 2022
Military research groups at the leading edge of China's hypersonics and missile programs — many on a U.S. export blacklist — are purchasing a range of specialized American technology, including products developed by firms that have received millions of dollars in grants and contracts from the Pentagon, a Washington Post investigation has found.
The advanced software products are acquired by these military organizations through private Chinese firms that sell them on despite U.S. export controls designed to prevent sales or resales to foreign entities deemed a threat to U.S. national security, the investigation shows.
Scientists who work in the sprawling network of Chinese military research academies and the companies that aid them said in interviews that American technology — such as highly specialized aeronautical engineering software — fills critical gaps in domestic technology and is key to advances in Chinese weaponry.
"In this case the American technology is superior — we can't do certain things without foreign technology," said one Chinese scientist who works in a university lab that conducts testing for hypersonic vehicles. "There isn't the same technical foundation."
Some of the U.S. firms whose products are reaching Chinese military research groups have been the beneficiaries of Defense Department grants to spur cutting-edge innovation, according to a federal program database, creating the specter of the Pentagon subsidizing Chinese military advances.
"It's very disturbing, because the bottom line is that technology that can be used for military hypersonics was funded by U.S. taxpayers, through the U.S. government, and ended up in China," said Iain Boyd, director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who conducts experimental research on hypersonics.
The Washington Post mapped more than 300 sales since 2019 of U.S.-origin technology to dozens of entities involved in China's hypersonics or missile programs by analyzing contract solicitation and award documents issued by the groups, as well as speaking to six Chinese scientists working in military labs and universities who described almost unfettered access to American technology with applications in the design and testing of missiles. The scientists spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive research.
The steady stream of high-end software flowing to a critical area of research in which the Chinese military threatens to outpace the United States highlights the challenge Washington has in trying to prevent China's military from exploiting American innovation.
Hypersonics refers to a range of emerging technologies that can propel missiles at greater than five times the speed of sound and potentially evade current defenses. Pentagon officials have said the United States and China are locked in an arms race to develop the most potent hypersonic weapons.
To build a hypersonic missile, scientists need to solve advanced physics problems relating to missile flight. Wind tunnel tests and live launches such as a highly publicized one China undertook in 2021 are costly. Using commercial American software, the result of years and sometimes decades of research and development, minimizes the time and resources needed for such tests, Chinese scientists told The Post. The American products also have applications in commercial aerospace, as well as in other fields where China and the United States compete, including aircraft engine design.
The technology being purchased includes various forms of computer-aided engineering software, such as aeroelasticity software, which can be used to simulate and analyze the extreme physical conditions experienced by airborne vehicles. It allows scientists to test designs virtually without relying solely on more costly wind tunnel tests and live drills. Other sales include hardware such as interferometers, which can be used by scientists to capture highly accurate data in wind tunnel tests.
U.S. scientists said computer-aided simulation is a critical step before advancing to wind tunnel and live tests for weapons such as hypersonic missiles.
"I'm going to design [a hypersonic missile] with these software tools," said one U.S. researcher who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity. "I'm going to fly it in a computer and analyze it with these tools. And once I've gotten the model to the point where it flies my mission, I can go test it in a wind tunnel."
U.S. export controls ban any sales of American products to China — and their resale inside China — if there is knowledge that they will be used for developing a missile or if they are destined for a restricted entity. But some of the technology, which also has applications in civilian aerospace research, is finding its way to Chinese military groups and restricted entities through Chinese middlemen firms — some of which openly advertise relationships with weapons and military groups on their websites, The Post found.
Exporters are responsible under Commerce Department guidance to determine whether their distributor is selling to a restricted party or for a barred use. "What we've always told companies is you cannot self-blind," said Matthew S. Borman, the department's deputy assistant secretary for export administration, in an interview. "You can't just say, 'Oh, I'm selling it to a distributor, I don't know what they're going to do with it.' Especially if it's a party where it's readily ascertainable that they are a supplier to the Chinese military."
"The first responsibility is on the company," Borman added. "And if they don't exercise that responsibility, they run the risk that they will be committing a violation."
The blanket export restriction applies to companies or organizations on a blacklist known as the Entity List, which prohibits sales without prior U.S. government permission to entities deemed a risk to national security. The ban on selling products for use in developing a missile is known as the "missile catchall," Borman said. That's because it doesn't matter if the item can otherwise be shipped to China without a Commerce Department export license. Even an exporter seeking to ship a pencil made in the United States to a known missile end user in China would be denied a license, he said.
A ‘bright, bright, bright red flag’
Using Chinese government procurement databases and other contract documents, The Post identified almost 50 U.S. firms whose products were sold through intermediaries since 2019 to Chinese military groups that work on missile technology. The aerodynamics simulation software of two companies — Arizona-based Zona Technology and California-headquartered Metacomp Technologies — was sold through resellers to the Chinese Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA), contract solicitation and award documents show. CAAA was instrumental in the design of China's 2021 hypersonic missile test, according to two Chinese military scientists familiar with the program.
The Post could not determine whether the software was used in the missile design process for that test. But its potential uses include the simulation of conditions in preparation for a real-life test such as the one in 2021, American and Chinese scientists said.
The test, which sent a hypersonic vehicle hurtling around the Earth, shocked U.S. military and intelligence officials, and led Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to call it "very close to" a "Sputnik moment."
China in recent years has made rapid advances in missile technology, part of a broader national drive to build a "world-class military" on par with leading defense powers like the United States by 2049, the centenary of the People's Republic of China.
Though CAAA is not on the Entity List, the "missile catchall" provision should bar American software from being sent to it if the exporter or one of its resellers had knowledge that the software was going to be used for missile development, experts said.
"U.S. export controls require a license for the export of any type of software, hardware or technology to China if there is knowledge that it would be used to develop a missile or other item used for weapons of mass destruction," said Kevin Wolf, a former senior official at the Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security who is now a partner at Akin Gump and advises clients on export controls. "And that license would generally be denied."
Other experts said CAAA should be on the Entity List.
"For at least the past seven years, CAAA has been a core contributor to the development of China's hypersonic and other advanced missile programs as a hub of rocket design, test and wind tunnel expertise in China," said Nathan Picarsic, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and co-founder of the geostrategic consulting firm Horizon Advisory. "Simply put, CAAA helps the Chinese military develop advanced missiles."
Zona chief executive P.C. Chen said he had no knowledge of a sale of its aeroelasticity simulation software — a type of aerodynamics software — directly to CAAA. He said that Zona had in the past sold the software to Hifar Technologies, the Beijing-based military technology supplier that, according to a contract award document, resold it to CAAA. Zona's China distributor, Jon Ding, who runs Georgia-based 2D Technology, said he licensed Zona software to Hifar in 2019.
Hifar makes no secret that it sells software and consulting services to Chinese missile groups. It lists more than 50 military groups and suppliers as "cooperation partners" on its website, including CAAA, the China Air to Air Missile Research Institute, the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, and the People's Liberation Army's missile group, the China Aerodynamics Research and Development Center.
Asked whether he checked that all the clients Hifar has sold Zona software to weren't military entities, Ding said, "I didn't, because they promised me and I trust them, so I don't do this kind of tracking." He said he warned Hifar not to sell to restricted groups.
Wolf, the former BIS official, said that if a distributor listed a number of military groups, including missile groups, in China as partners, that would be a "bright, bright, bright red flag." If the company shipped software to such a distributor without addressing the red flags or getting a license, there could be a violation of the regulation, he said.
"An additional question is whether the distributors in China had knowledge that the software would be used to help develop a missile," Wolf said. "If so, they could be liable because even foreign persons are required to comply with the U.S. export control rules when dealing with U.S.-origin items."
Experts said U.S. exporters should not rely on Chinese resellers to conduct due diligence and obtain the licenses required. "If your distributor, frankly, is in China, take what they tell you with a grain of salt and ensure you do your own due diligence," said Marwa Hassoun, a national security lawyer at ArentFox Schiff law firm who specializes in export controls.
Hifar did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The Post was unable to reach CAAA and other Chinese military groups named in this article.
David Habib, legal counsel for Metacomp, said the firm has "no knowledge of whether or how those companies have acquired Metacomp software or transferred it to others," referring to CAAA and another military group that government contract awards show received the technology, as well as two Chinese intermediaries that, according to award notices, sold the software. He said the firm is "scrupulous in complying with U.S. export control laws and demands its customers comply as well."
The Commerce Department, citing business confidentiality regulations, would not comment on any specific firm and whether it sought or was granted a license to export, or whether it was being investigated for a violation.
Both Zona and Metacomp have contracts for research and development services with the U.S. Air Force, according to federal documents. Defense Department contractors are required to comply with applicable export controls and sanctions or risk losing the contract or even being blacklisted as a contractor.
Both companies have received grants from the Pentagon's Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR), which awards money to help develop technologies that the department hopes one day will aid America's own defense capabilities. Most of the SBIR-funded technologies are "dual use," or have both civilian and military applications. Most SBIR contracts are for a three-month or up to two-year period, which covers the research and development phase and typically expires before the technologies go to market, according to officials at the Air Force, which runs the U.S. government's largest SBIR program. Zona and Metacomp have received $31.6 million and $13.9 million, respectively, from the program, according to award records.
In a phone interview, Zona CEO Chen said he founded the company in 1988. In the mid-1990s, he said, with the help of SBIR grants, Zona began developing aeroelasticity software that is now marketed as Zaero and Zonair, the same technology that was sold through military supplier Hifar to CAAA.
A ‘technical blockade’
The Post's analysis found that at least 50 purchasers in China were on Commerce's Entity List. Several of the sales were made through China intermediaries such as Hifar that acknowledge supplying Chinese military clients, according to an examination of their websites.
Some transactions involved software from the most prominent American companies in commercial aerospace design technology.
In 2020, software made by the Pennsylvania firm Ansys Inc. was sold to the Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT) through a subsidiary of its Chinese partner, Pera Global, according to procurement documents and company filings.
BIT is one of China's top defense universities, and was placed on the Entity List shortly before the sale occurred. In December, its research on the advanced physics of hypersonic vehicles was designated a "key research and development project" by China's Science and Technology Ministry.
The Pera Global subsidiary, Beijing Iwintall Technology Co. Ltd., won the contract to sell Ansys technology to BIT, according to contract award documents. On its website, Iwintall states that the computer-aided engineering technology it sells helps Chinese researchers, including those involved in hypersonics, more quickly develop domestic versions of foreign technology that is currently restricted under a "technical blockade" by "developed" nations.
The software, Iwintall states, "can support research and development at a product's conceptual design stage and greatly expand the innovative solutions." The company also states that it has a "cooperation alliance" with Ansys, and lists BIT as a client.
Pera and its subsidiary did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The Post reviewed procurement documents related to seven other sales since 2020 of Ansys technology to Chinese groups that are either on the export blacklist or have known missile links, including through three other Chinese intermediaries that had no apparent link to Pera Global. These groups include the National University of Defense Technology, which is on the Entity List, and the China Air to Air Missile Research Institute in Luoyang, which develops long-range, high-precision missiles.
In a statement to The Post, Ansys said it and its subsidiaries "have no records of the indicated sales or shipments of our software products to, nor have we authorized the end-use by, the National University of Defense Technology, Luoyang Air to Air Missile Research group, or the Beijing Institute of Technology."
Ansys "is committed to complying with all applicable U.S. export control laws and regulations" and "maintain[s] a rigorous global trade compliance program," it said. The company said, however, that software "piracy has unfortunately become an industry-wide problem," suggesting that theft is one way the software might be winding up in the hands of unauthorized users.
Another major firm in this specialized industry is Siemens Digital Industries Software, an American unit of the German firm Siemens. Some of its software was purchased by the Beijing Institute of Technology in December 2020 through a Chinese reseller that is a Siemens partner, Transemic Information Technology Ltd., procurement documents show. The announcement that Transemic had won the contract for the sale was made a few days after the entity listing, according to a contract awards database. Beihang University, which like BIT is on Commerce's blacklist, also purchased Siemens technology in 2021 through a different reseller, according to the documents.
Transemic, like Hifar, openly advertises its work with China's military, and on its website said it is Siemens's "first military industry partner" in China to pass the company's certification process. It posted images of an August 2017 "Military Industry Digitization Seminar" it hosted for defense industry clients in Chengdu, which featured a speech from a Siemens China sales director.
Siemens declined to comment on its relationship with Transemic, the conference or sales to specific customers in China. In a statement, Siemens said it "is committed to compliance with applicable national export controls regimes. We monitor our customer base to facilitate compliance with these regulations and proactively and routinely discontinue selling our software portfolio to entities subject to U.S. government restrictions."
Siemens Digital Industries Software announced an agreement in July to acquire Zona. In an email this month, Siemens said the sale was still pending. "All we can say at this time is all of our sales are governed by Siemens' comprehensive export compliance practices and our commitment to comply with U.S. export laws," the company said in a statement.
‘Controls need to be expanded’
A second Chinese scientist involved in hypersonics research said that foreign technology acquired by one military research institute or private military supplier often flows freely to other research institutes, circumventing commercial transactions with U.S. suppliers. "So if one [researcher] says, 'Hey, I need some [software] for this project or this time period,' it's easy to share," the scientist said.
The Post also found evidence of high-end optical hardware going to Chinese missile and military groups. Arizona-based 4D Technology Corp. makes interferometers — devices used to capture extremely accurate measurements in turbulent conditions. American researchers say they are used to gather data in hypersonic tests.
"There's a bunch of different techniques in hypersonics where you use an interferometer to basically make measurements of turbulence and high-speed flow," said Chris Combs, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who specializes in hypersonic aerodynamics and wind tunnel testing.
The company — which received more than $2.5 million in Pentagon SBIR grants between 2010 and 2017, according to the program's database — sold interferometer technology to the China Air to Air Missile Research Institute in January through its China distributor Opturn Company Ltd., according to a notice posted by the institute. The institute is not on the Entity List.
4D and Opturn did not respond to requests for comment.
"It's clear that controls need to be expanded for software and technology with uses in hypersonics," said Ian Stewart, executive director of Middlebury College's Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington. "More strategic entities need to be placed on the Entity List. And as a rule, sensitive goods or technology should never be sent to or sold through distributors."
The use of American software is also documented in presentations at military industry conferences in China.
At a 2019 hypersonics conference in Inner Mongolia, a group of Chinese scientists listened to a Hifar Technologies representative give a keynote presentation on recent advances in Zona's aeroelasticity software Zonair and Zaero, according to a participant and an event description posted on Hifar's website.
The conference was hosted by the China Aerodynamics Research and Development Center, a secretive organization headed by a PLA general that houses 18 wind tunnels. CARDC, which is located in a zone off-limits to foreigners in Mianyang, a city in southwest China known for nuclear weapons research, was placed on the Entity List in 1999 for aiding missile proliferation.
Members of the Chinese Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics — one of the groups behind the 2021 hypersonic test — were at the event, according to the participant. A month after the conference, the group purchased Zona aeroelasticity software through Hifar.
The Washington Post's Alice Crites and Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.