By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization
(Washington D.C.) Paradigm-changing deep-penetrating warheads, new hardened, heat resistant nano-composite materials enabling hypersonic weapons flight, vertical take-off-and-landing drones and a new generation of submarine “quieting” technologies are all massively impactful breakthrough technology of vital significance to cutting-edge and future US weapons systems.
All of these areas of innovation and scientific exploration, some of which involved the discovery and development of “disruptive” or breakthrough technologies, were heavily focused upon in recent decades at the well known, prestigious US Los Alamos National Laboratory. However, to put things simply and clearly, many of the US-driven technological advances in these critical areas appear to have been stolen by Chinese spies.
Technologically driven Chinese espionage at Los Alamos hit the news in a very public way earlier this year, following a private counterintelligence investigation. The discoveries shined additional light on the concerning and well-documented problems arising from Chinese cyber attacks, espionage and deliberate efforts to “steal” sensitive US military technology. Much of this was of course known and certainly became much more widely understood when Chinese operations at Los Alamos were exposed publicly. What is lesser known, yet perhaps of greatest significance, is that China’s infiltration and theft of sensitive US military technologies is a result of a deliberate, multi-decade elaborate campaign to develop, recruit and mature “talent” for the specific purpose of learning and “stealing” impactful technological discoveries under the guise of collaborative scientific exploration.
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An interesting and extremely significant report from a strategic intelligence firm Strider, called “The Los Alamos Club” used open-source research to learn that, between 1987 and 2021, at least 162 scientists who had worked at Los Alamos returned to China to support a variety of domestic research and development programs.
“Fifteen of those scientists worked as permanent staff members at Los Alamos. Of those fifteen, thirteen were recruited into PRC government talent programs; some were responsible for sponsoring visiting scholars and postdoctoral researchers from the PRC, and some received U.S. government funding for sensitive research,” the text of the Strider report states.
The Strider findings, supported by substantial, detailed open source documentation, reveal a massive, decades-long deliberate effort to find, cultivate, place and ultimately leverage scientific expertise acquired through critical and often highly sensitive scientific and technological exploration. Some of the scientists investigated for the report returned to China after holding a highly-sensitive “Q Clearance” allowing access to Top Secret Restricted Data and National Security Information.
The Strider Report reveals that indeed the Chinese effort was far more elaborate, long-standing and deliberate than may have previously been realized or even suspected by some. Under the auspices of a cooperative sensibility in support of scientific discovery, Chinese scientists with ties to the Chinese government essentially recruited additional scientists with critical technology area expertise and access to US-driven scientific innovation of military significance during their time at Los Alamos.
For instance, the Strider report specifies that as many as 59 scientists of the 162 who returned to China after working at Los Alamos were part of a special Chinese “talent recruitment program” called the Thousand Talents Program and its youth branch called the Youth Thousand Talents Program.
While the Strider report is quite clear to say it is not assigning “blame” to Los Alamos, its findings are specific, quite detailed and of potentially enormous consequence. “This report documents the ambitions of the PRC’s talent strategy and its exploitation of Western commitments to global scientific collaboration. It does not argue that Los Alamos National Laboratory bears responsibility for, or was complicit, in the PRC’s recruitment of former Los Alamos affiliates,” the report writes.
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The text of the report is filled with specifics related to particular scientists and impactful areas of weapons exploration. Specifically, the report says the work of Chinese scientist Dr. Chen Shiyi, an expert who worked at Los Alamos throughout the 90s, “made important contributions that allowed the PRC to surpass the US in air breathing hypersonic vehicle research and development.”
After spending the 90s at Los Alamos, Shiyi returned to China where, as President of the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), he succeeded in recruiting scientists with ties to Los Alamos. SUSTech is a Chinese-government funded institution said to operate with the ambition of becoming “China’s Stanford.”
What might the impact of this Chinese effort have been? What might it continue to be in the coming years? Senior US weapons developers repeatedly say publicly that the US became “number 3” in the world behind Russia and China in the realm of hypersonics weapons development. While the US is fast-closing this gap and progressing with rapid success to test, develop and ultimately deploy its own hypersonic arsenal, China’s hypersonic weapons testing has certainly been the focus of much attention and hype. The report specifically details US-led innovations in the realm of hypersonic weapons which “made important contributions” to what became China’s ability to “surpass” the US in certain critical areas such as air breathing hypersonic vehicle research and development. Essentially, it appears entirely possible if not even likely that China’s Los Alamos directed Thousand Talents Program played a major role in creating a “gap” between China and the US in the realm of hypersonic weapons.
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One of Shiyi’s most significant moves, the report says, was to recruit Zhao Yusheng, a Chinese scientist who spent 18 years at Los Alamos.
“In a 2004 edition of a Los Alamos publication, Nuclear Weapons Journal, Zhao described how research on superhard nanocomposites was “highly promising for hypersonic high-speed penetration” and noted that “superhard materials in warhead penetrators [would] significantly enhance technological advantages of U.S. weaponry,” the report states. Three years after publishing this in 2004, Zhao filed a national defense patent in China for an “ultra-thick penetrating warhead.”
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Key portions of the hypersonic weapons research performed by the Los Alamos club was involved with Hypersonic Quiet Wind Tunnel experimentation wherein projectiles were assessed for aerodynamic properties, thermal management and boundary layer phenomenology. These areas are essential to hypersonic weapons development because weapons need to be constructed with special kinds of heat-resistant composite materials and “shaped” with contours to enable stable air-boundary flow at hypersonic speeds to maintain precision guidance and flight-path trajectory.
A “turbulent” air flow surrounding a projectile, for example, can cause great movement and turbulence surrounding the hypersonic weapon, causing instability and disrupting or destroying its intended flight path. For years, the biggest challenge for weapons developers had not so much been an ability to demonstrate hypersonic speeds but rather an ability to “sustain” hypersonic speeds throughout an entire flight path. This relies heavily upon air-flow boundary layer dynamics and thermal management. Materials able to ensure a hypersonic projectile maintains its flight path without exploding or fragmenting due to intense heat may have been a breakthrough “catalyst” in the maturation of hypersonic weapons. Discoveries related to “superhard” nanocomposites for hypersonic flight outlined by Zhao in the Los Alamos publication may have been brought to China to help the PRC quickly achieve breakthrough superiority in the area of hypersonic flight.
Other critical areas of technological discovery potentially stolen by Chinese scientists working at Los Alamos pertain to jet-engine propulsion, vertical take off drones and “quieting” technologies for submarines. In recent years, Chinese weapons developers have been integrating a new WS-10 C domestically built engine into its J-20 5th-generation stealth fighter, something which could have been informed to some extent by technologies stolen by the Los Alamos Club.
Vertical take off drones is yet another area of technological progress which the Strider report associates with espionage at Los Alamos. Through platforms such as the US Navy’s FireScout drone which features a helicopter-like ability to take-off and land vertically, the US has been a leader for many years in the deployment of ship-launched drones such as the Fire Scout. Vertical take-off ability (VTOL) for drones is extremely critical as they need to operate in austere areas without runways and take-off at sea without needing a carrier deck. The US Navy’s application of this kind of technology allowed for the deployment of the VTOL FireScout drone on destroyers and the Littoral Combat Ship. The Strider report says that sure enough in 2019, a Los Alamos connected Chinese Scientist helped China produce its own VTOL prototype drone.
Submarine quieting technology was also targeted by Chinese scientist-spies at Los Alamos, an area of pressing relevance to the US Navy in the Pacific. The Strider report explains how research involving Chinese scientists at Los Alamos proved essential in the development of new submarine “noise reduction technology.” This is an area of critical significance to the US Navy as it continues to develop and integrate new “quieting” technologies into its submarine fleet to ensure its continued undersea superiority. This is a pressing challenge given that US Navy attack submarines are now used more fully as clandestine reconnaissance nodes able to patrol and search high-risk enemy waters and coastlines and no longer more narrowly restricted to forward protecting firepower with weapons such as Tomahawks and Torpedoes.
In recent years, for instance, the US Navy integrated a new series of quieting technologies into its fleet of Virginia-class submarines with new coating materials, antennas and propulsion applications designed to enhance the “stealth” properties of the attack submarine fleet. Could some of these critical innovations have been stolen by Chinese submarine developers and applied to China’s fleet of submarines? These US Navy quieting discoveries were first integrated 7-to-8 years ago on a prototype Virginia class Block III boat the USS South Dakota. The USS South Dakota has since deployed successfully with these technological enhancements and the quieting technologies continue to be integrated across the entire US Navy attack submarine force.
These upgraded submarines could possibly enable a quiet, stealthy group of forward operating attack submarines to discover a Chinese amphibious attack on Taiwan at its inception near Chinese shores and destroy the fleet with torpedoes and Tomahawks while remaining undetected. While many of the specifics regarding these Navy technologies are not available for security reasons, leaders have often cited them publicly in a general way. Many of these applications are likely of great significance to US Navy undersea dominance. It is entirely realistic to posit that US Navy undersea superiority could potentially “save” Taiwan in the event of a Chinese amphibious attack. However, in light of the Strider report, one cannot help but wonder if the Chinese also have these “quieting” enhancements, in part due to scientific espionage at Los Alamos.
Following its detailed exploration of these instances of potential Chinese espionage and “stealing,” as evidenced to some extent in China’s new weapons platforms, the Strider report calls for the need to intensify vigilance and critical measures to protect US innovation centers.
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One potential consideration may be that China’s leadership was thinking decades into the future in the late 80s and 90s, during a time when China may have seemed less threatening. However, at this time decades ago, China may have at the time been thinking about, planning and pursuing global military dominance decades ago, and taking deliberate steps in that direction. This planning and execution appears to have been planned at a time when the scope or understanding of the Chinese threat and extend of China’s global ambitions may have been lesser known, understood or recognized within the US.
It appears that may be changing as awareness regarding the scope of this challenge becomes more accurately understood. In recent years, China's ambition for global dominance has become both more pronounced and explicit, as cited in numerous Pentagon China reports. An interesting essay from the US State Department explains how some of China's efforts can be supported and expedited through the country's well-known Military Civil Fusion.
"The CCP is developing and acquiring key technologies through licit and illicit means. These include investment in private industries, talent recruitment programs, directing academic and research collaboration to military gain, forced technology transfer, intelligence gathering, and outright theft," the State Dept. essay says.
Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.