WASHINGTON – Many of the industry observers testifying before a Senate panel yesterday said the Chinese probably gained little from their work with American satellite companies that would have caused China’s missile capabilities to leap ahead.
“There is no indication in the public record of an actual identifiable harm to the American security interests,” John Pike, director of the Space Policy Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told a Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs subcommittee.
“Irresponsible public claims to the contrary, China today has no capabilities to attack the United States that it did not have a year ago or a decade ago,” said Pike.
But others, including William Graham, former deputy administrator of NASA and science adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, said it was impossible for China to be launching U.S. satellites without learning about their technology.
“The integration of the payload . . . requires an intimate knowledge of both the payload and the launch vehicle,” said Graham. “This is not like putting a load into the back of a truck. A great deal of detailed technical information must be exchanged between the satellite’s designers and . . . the vehicle’s designers.”
Graham noted that simply launching satellites had enabled the Chinese to practice and improve their techniques for launching long-range rockets or armed missiles, which experts say fly using largely the same technology.
The controversy is rooted in part in the high cost of launching multimillion-dollar satellites. Those launched in China are mostly commercial and involve uses such as transmitting television and digital pager signals.
The Chinese, eager to build a lucrative industry, charge satellite-makers such as Loral Space & Communications and Hughes Electronics millions of dollars less per launch than their U.S. counterparts do. By using China, American companies also avoid a long waiting list for launches at home.
In fact, the U.S. government on 20 occasions since 1989 has approved the launching in China of satellites made wholly or partly by U.S. companies.
The risk to the security of the United States was viewed as minimal until the February 1996 crash of the Long March rocket – the workhorse of China’s growing space-launch industry. In that episode, the rocket came crashing back to Earth shortly after takeoff, with a satellite made by Loral and Hughes fixed in its payload.
Loral’s and Hughes’ actions following the crash are at the heart of the increasingly shrill allegations of security breaches.
In an effort to identify the cause of the crash, Loral sent a team of employees to China and prepared a report of the incident.
Critics contend that in an effort to preserve the American companies’ use of a low-cost launch vehicle and appease nervous insurance underwriters, Loral and Hughes gave away information on sophisticated rocket guidance systems that the Pentagon had wanted kept secret.
Loral acknowledges it was under pressure from insurance companies to do its own review of the accident before future launches in China would be insured. But it denies that it gave away secret information.
Loral also said that its review found the same result as Chinese investigators and that the American team did not provide any data or perform any tests for the Chinese.
But in a statement, the company acknowledged that it “provided a report to the Chinese before consulting with State Department export licensing authorities.”
Sen. Fred Thompson (R., Tenn.) said the issue showed the need for greater oversight of the industry but said he was not certain he wanted to ban launches abroad of American satellites. “We do know that it is very much in the interest of our commercial enterprises for these missiles carrying these satellites to work,” he said.
Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) said the Clinton administration had regulated China’s launches the same way past administrations have.
Credit: Michael D. Towle, INQUIRER WASHINGTON BUREAU