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.China builds advanced weapons systems using American chip technology
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.