The Complex

Army Investigates China Spy Incident ... That Involves No Secrets

No secrets were spilled. And all of the documents in question are publicly available. But the U.S. Army has nonetheless launched an internal review of its administrative practices after members of a Chinese military delegation began asking for U.S. government manuals a bit too aggressively during a September visit to an American base.

The so-called 15-6 investigation reflects the growing unease within some quarters of the U.S. military and the broader American national security community about how best to engage with China's People's Liberation Army. In recent years, the foundation of the relationship has been an approach best described as you-show-me-yours-and-I'll-show-you-mine. But some are questioning that path, especially now that China has sparked an international incident when it declared a so-called "Air Defense Identification Zone" over disputed territory late last month. Vice President Joe Biden called for that declaration to be taken back on Monday. He is expected to visit Beijing later in the week.

At issue in the Army investigation is the behavior of some members of a seven-person Chinese delegation that travelled to the U.S. in late September. The group, led by Maj. Gen. Chen Dongdeng, the PLA's director of so-called "military engagement," visited the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas as part of a two-stop visit that also included Washington, D.C. The goal at Leavenworth: to "participate in an informational exchange" on U.S. Army doctrine and "operational theory," according to an internal Army news story produced at the time. But the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC, which hosted the delegation, never sought the approval of the Army's G-2 intelligence directorate and bureaucratic feathers got ruffled as a result.

It might have ended there. But during the two-day visit, Dongdeng and members of his delegation asked repeatedly for copies of U.S. Army doctrine documents. Although the documents are "open source" -- meaning they are available to the public -- it was the pointed way in which the Chinese general sought them that raised eyebrows and came off as awkward, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

The Army isn't commenting on the conduct of the visitors. An Army official would only acknowledge that the service is conducting an internal review of its administrative practices because of the way in which the visit was handled within the Army.

"What we're looking into is the process of foreign delegations coming to military posts," Army spokesman Lt. Col. Don Peters told Foreign Policy. "We're looking for internal administrative procedures on how to better to do this, how we can do things better."

A Chinese spokesman for the delegation was quoted in the Fort Leavenworth Lamp saying the exchange of "operational theory and doctrine" during the visit is "very important to allow our two militaries to achieve even deeper understanding of each other's military, which helps increase mutual understanding and build mutual trust."

In 2000, Congress passed legislation that limits the ways that the U.S. government can help the PLA by restricting certain "mil-to-mil" contact. The law prevents any contact at all if it poses a national security risk "due to inappropriate exposure." The law lists 12 areas, including information on "force projection" and nuclear, logistical or chemical and biological defense operations. It also restricts mil-to-mil contact on surveillance and reconnaissance operations, joint warfighting experiments and "other activities related to transformations in warfare." Since the law was passed, there has been considerable debate on how to interpret the 12 parameters, or how to ensure that the relationship between the U.S. military and the PLA can continue but stay within the confines of the law.

Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser on Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said she was not aware of any mil-to-mil engagements recently in which the Chinese "stepped outside of boundaries." On the contrary, she said, most have been successful.  "We're not seeing a pattern of Chinese behavior like this," she said.

At least not from members of the Beijing government. In the private sector, however, it's not uncommon for Chinese business executives who are visiting American companies to attempt to split off from their guided tours and pilfer through filing cabinets or try to log into company computers, according to a former U.S. counterintelligence official. "It's like teens shoplifting. You can be supervised by a minder. Then someone causes a distraction, and another goes off to a keyboard and starts looking at something he's not supposed to," the official said.

However, the former official added that it would be rare for Chinese military officials to try to obtain secrets this way during an official visit to the United States. And if they were caught, there would be some form of official protest and the delegation would not be invited back.

When it comes to the mil-to-mil relationship between the U.S. and China, there are believers and and there are doubters. Proponents say it's a way for the U.S. to gain insight into the Chinese military and minimizes the kind of missteps and "miscalculations" that could lead to bigger problems. Skeptics, however, say there is futility in building bridges with the Chinese in the hopes the it will lead to a more transparent relationship.

A report (.pdf) from the Congressional Research Service framed the issue of the U.S.-China mil-to-mil relationship as one on which Congress should remain vigilant. "Skeptics and proponents of military exchanges with the PRC have debated whether the contacts achieve results in U.S. objectives and whether the contacts contribute to the PLA's warfighting capability that might harm U.S. and allied security interests," according to the Nov. 20 report. "Some have argued about whether the value that U.S. officials place on the contacts overly extends leverage to the PLA."

U.S. officials have repeatedly singled out China as a major source of espionage directed at U.S. corporations, government agencies, the military, and the Defense Department. In March, then National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said Chinese theft of U.S. business secrets was "a growing challenge to our economic relationship with China" and a "key point of concern and discussion with China at all levels of our governments."

In 2011, a report from the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive marked the first time that U.S. officials had publicly and on record blamed China as the source of so much industrial spying, calling the country the source of "the world's most active and persistent perpetrators of economic espionage."

The report stated, "China's intelligence services, as well as private companies and other entities, frequently seek to exploit Chinese citizens or persons with family ties to China who can use their insider access to corporate networks to steal trade secrets using removable media devices or e-mail."

But that report dealt mostly with cyber espionage -- Chinese spies hacking into U.S. computers and stealing information. The Ft. Leavenworth incident apparently involved no classified or even sensitive material. Which makes the fuss about it even tougher to fathom.  

U.S. officials and lawmakers have been especially sensitive to potential espionage by another source in China--Huawei, the China-based telecommuniations giant. Late last month, Robert Menendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Commitee, and Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote to top administration officials "to experss our concerns" over reports that Huawei plans to build a broadband network in South Korea. Lawmakers and intelligence officials have accused the company of acting as a proxy for the Chinese military and intellience services. 

The senators asked Secetary of State John Kerry, Secreatry of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for their "assessment of potential threats and security concerns" about Huawei's work in South Korea. The senators are concerned that having Huawei equipment in the networks of an ally that's also a bulkwark against North Korea could compromise U.S. national security. The letter was first reported in the Daily Beast

Huawe's CEO said recently that he's giving up on the U.S. telecom market in the wake of persistent spying allegations. But its foreign business has been thriving. 



The Complex

Elon Musk Will Try to Take the Rocket Biz from Europe and Russia -- Tonight

SpaceX, the plucky little rocket company with unearthly ambition, is trying to become the first American firm in decades to routinely launch large commercial satellites into orbit. And they're about to have their first trial.

If SpaceX succeeds, it's a giant win for all sorts of U.S. technology interests. If they fail, the world is back to relying on the French and the Russians to get their spacecraft in orbit.

It won't be easy. Big commercial satellites are tough to launch. They need to go to geostationary orbit, about 22,000 miles up, and travel fast enough to keep the orbit stable (the International Space Station is only about 250 miles up in low Earth orbit). The advantage is that, to an observer on Earth, the satellite always stays in the same place -- the antenna will always point in the same direction, making it easy use. We use those satellites daily for all kinds of information: Local television stations get feeds from host networks, ATM withdrawals get approval from banks, people on ships or in distant areas use them to speak with one another. To get way out to geostationary orbit, you need a big, expensive rocket, so to get the most bang for their buck the relevant companies make ever-larger, heavier, more capable satellites. The only U.S. company currently capable of such launches is United Launch Alliance (ULA), which has long since priced itself out of the market.

The commercial space business is hugely important. First, rockets use essentially the same technology as missiles (some are, literally, repurposed ICBMs), hence the nervousness surrounding North Korean and Iranian space programs. They are also vital to keeping high-technology business and R&D going, including associated university programs, think tanks, etc. (Think of the U.S. commercial aerospace sector without Boeing.) Finally, space really is the final frontier, and it's generally thought that being better at space launch makes everything related to space that much easier. The government can only afford to support so much of this on its budget; to ease the strain, the United States needs a commercial industry.

For years, SpaceX has been building up to a huge checkpoint: commercial success. Next week's launch (delayed from this week and several times before) will finally determine whether America gets back into the commercial space business, or fails yet again.

How did we get here?

Back in the 1970s, the United States had a virtual monopoly on commercial satellite launches, flying Titan, Atlas, and Delta rockets for satellite communication and television companies. But space launch capabilities are as strategic an industry as ever was, and competition is inevitable. The French Ariane series began launching at the end of that decade, and increasingly capable versions quickly took market share from U.S. companies. Glasnost and the fall of the Soviet Union really opened up the market: The Soviets had some of the best rockets in the world, and the rapacious capitalism that gripped the new Russia quickly turned quasi-military programs into very affordable commercial launch vehicles.

To compete, the United States turned to Lockheed and Boeing for substantial updates of their Atlas and Delta systems. The resulting Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs), the Atlas V and Delta IV, were to compete on the open market, and the U.S. government would reap the benefits of mass production. Demand for commercial satellites was set to explode, brought about by a huge demand for satellite telephone, television, and data services. But that market never really took off; cheap cell phones killed the satphone business, and fiber optic cables kept demand for satellite TV in check. Increasingly strict technology export regulations made information-sharing immensely difficult. A series of sketchy incidents led Boeing and Lockheed to join forces in the form of United Launch Alliance (ULA), ending the realistic idea of domestic competition. With huge cost overruns and without being able to amortize over many launches, the EELVs became increasingly expensive, essentially pricing themselves out of commercial markets altogether, leaving them wholly reliant on a monopoly over U.S. government launches. The U.S. market share for large commercial launches fell from near-monopoly to near-irrelevance.

Enter Elon Musk, the entrepreneur tuned Internet billionaire. Musk started with a simple goal, and the funds to pull it off: Get humans off the Earth and on Mars. Initially he hoped to use Russian rockets, but after long negotiations with the Russians, the costs were still unacceptable. So he began his own company, SpaceX, in 2000. Despite some failures -- virtually inevitable in the industry -- the company has moved at breathtaking speed using the simple philosophy of standardizing everything, building everything in-house, and pushing rocket components out at a furious rate. (For example, the Falcon 9 first stage uses nine engines where similar rockets use one. SpaceX can build an unheard-of 40 engines a year.) The company is deeply involved with reusability, a holy grail with the potential to drastically reduce launch costs. The idea is to build a commercially viable business, and use that money to fund ever-larger and ever-cheaper rockets, culminating in landing crewed missions on Mars.

Tuesday -- or whenever they launch, delays are common -- will be the first big test of that strategy, SpaceX's first launch up to geostationary orbit. SpaceX has around 40 commercial launches on backlog, a big number by any standard, enough to keep them occupied for years. But the company's record is mixed: There is no work of fiction like a future launch schedule, and customers that rely on regularly replacing old satellites will only tolerate so many of the multi-year delays that SpaceX has repeatedly introduced.

While Tuesday's launch will technically be the sixth Falcon 9 launch, it is only the second of the v1.1 rocket, which incorporates such substantial modifications to the fuel tanks and fuel supply systems that it is in many ways a new rocket. The risks -- and thus insurance costs -- of launching on a new rocket are huge, and of course nobody will want to fly on a rocket that doesn't work (as is standard, many SpaceX customers have scheduled backup launches with other companies). It also marks the first launch from the Cape Canaveral, Florida pad, which must work exactly as predicted.

Launching into space is difficult enough that engineers and enthusiasts hold their breath for every single launch, and even the most reliable rockets have had unexpected failures; most space launch companies have lost rockets and destroyed the payloads, some of them repeatedly. Tuesday's launch will be a very risky one, and certainly one to watch.

BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/GettyImages