Classified US software is helping China get an edge over the former in the hypersonic weapons race, despite tight export controls on such technology.
The Washington Post reported this week that blacklisted Chinese military research groups have been purchasing US software designed for computer simulations of hypersonic weapons tests. It uncovered 300 sales since 2019 of advanced software products from nearly 50 US firms to Chinese research groups involved in missile development programs.
The report claims that US firms have received millions of dollars in funding from the Pentagon and circumvented US export controls by selling to Chinese private middlemen distributors. Although the US has strict export controls on such sensitive technology, The Washington Post claims that US firms have turned a blind eye to private Chinese firms.
The report says that US exporters are responsible under US Commerce Department guidance to determine if their distributor sells to a restricted party or for prohibited uses. “What we’ve always told companies is you cannot self-blind,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration Matthew Borman to the Washington Post.
Computer simulation is critical in designing hypersonic weapons and identifying design errors before wind tunnel testing and live fire tests. At hypersonic speeds, air exhibits complex characteristics, requiring specialized aeronautical engineering software to simulate. These computer simulations allow China to advance its hypersonic weapons program while avoiding the US “test often, fail fast and learn” approach.
The Washington Post claims that the Chinese Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA) used US simulation software to develop the hypersonic glide vehicle used in China’s August 2021 hypersonic glide vehicle test (HGV), wherein it circled the globe before crashing into its target. General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the test as a “Sputnik moment,” reflecting the surprise China’s hypersonic missile test caused throughout the US defense establishment.
US software may have also aided China to design the high-end microchips necessary for its supercomputers to run hypersonic weapons simulations. Electronic design automation (EDA) software is at the heart of this design process, as it allows engineers ever more complex chips with billions of microscopic transistors on integrated circuits. However, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Review, the US has a near-monopoly on EDA software, with US companies controlling 70% of the global market.
Despite that near-monopoly, in 2021, The Washington Post reported that Chinese semiconductor company Phytium Technologies used US EDA software to design microchips for supercomputers used to run hypersonic weapons simulations, with the microchips manufactured in Taiwan.
In August this year, the US moved to ban the export of EDA software to China to hobble its ability to create microchips with so-called gate-all-around technology. These new microchips perform significantly better than existing designs, as they can be made smaller, packing more transistors on a single chip. They also feature improved performance without needing exotic cooling systems, enabling even more powerful supercomputers to be built.
“Supercomputing capabilities are vital for the development of many – perhaps almost all – modern weapons and national security systems, such as nuclear weapons and hypersonic weapons,” said US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo in a press release.
Despite those recent revelations, China has apparently used US software to simulate hypersonic weapons tests. For example, a November 2020 article in the South China Morning Post states that a research paper published in the Chinese Journal of Aeronautics revealed that US software provided by Pennsylvania-based company Ansys helped a Chinese research team simulate the aerodynamics of a hypersonic missile capable of taking out all existing air defense systems.
Despite the obvious national security risks to the US, corporate profit motives seem to have overridden security concerns. According to Mao Baofeng, a professor at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, US software firms do not want to lose the richly invested and profitable Chinese market, which is second only to the US in size.
Chinese companies, especially those in strategic sectors such as semiconductors, often operate under state supervision to capture critical technologies.
A 2019 report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission notes that Chinese companies, in many instances with the backing of the Chinese government, use various methods to gain access to valuable technologies.
These methods range from legal and coercive to covert means. The report also mentions that China’s case is unique since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) prioritizes as a matter of policy technology transfer and provides direct and indirect support to companies engaged in such activities.
China may also exploit US underinvestment in technology firms to acquire critical technology. A 2019 Politico article notes that China uses bankruptcy courts and foreign venture capital firms to secure access to US technology with surprisingly little US government oversight.
Moreover, a 2022 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report notes that software sales may be harder to restrict with export controls, as software is intangible, developed by many international companies and often based on openly available academic research.
Andrea and Mauro Gilli note in a 2019 article in the International Security peer-reviewed journal that rising states such as China can benefit from the “advantage of backwardness,” freeriding on the research and technology of more advanced countries.
They also note that Chinese military strategists are taking advantage of imitation and that China has relied on acquiring, assimilating and replicating foreign technology.
Additionally, in a 2014 article for Harvard Business Review, Regina Abrami and other writers said that China may enjoy the “latecomer’s advantage,” which is the ability to learn and improve previous works.
In acquiring hypersonic weapons testing software tools, China may have examined its source code to make its tailor-made versions suited to its specific needs. This March, Asia Times reported that Chinese researchers have claimed to develop an artificial intelligence (AI) application that can independently design hypersonic weapons.
The research team claimed that the AI could identify most shock waves produced in hypersonic wind tunnel tests, mirroring the purpose of US-made aeronautical engineering software. Most significantly, the research team claims to have built a knowledge base to develop new hypersonic engines and planes without human intervention.
All in all, China’s use of US software in its hypersonic weapons program is an apparent case of a tool being used against its makers.