Defection of Chinese rocket scientist rocks Beijing

It could take China years to tweak its systems and render this ‘intelligence ineffective’

It reads like something out of a spy novel.

A Chinese rocket scientist deftly approaches a member of MI6 intelligence service in Hong Kong, with the intention of defecting.

The scientist, in his 30s, says he possesses detailed information about the hypersonic glide vehicle — on the face of it, a gold-plated defection.

But is he for real, or is he a Chinese intelligence plant, a bogus agent setting them up for the big fall?

In today’s spy game, one never quite knows.

But this time, it turned out to be the real deal … and talk about a major-league intelligence coup.

According to a report in UK’s Daily Express newspaper last night, and quoting confidential sources, MI6 played a key role in helping a senior Chinese scientist to the West.

His escape is a huge blow to Beijing, sources said, allowing both Britain and the US to accelerate defensive programs against the use of hypersonic missiles.

Military juggernaut

Worse yet for Xi Jinping’s military juggernaut, it could also take China years to tweak its systems and “render this intelligence ineffective,” sources said.

Described as a rocket technician, the Chinese national was attached to the state-owned Aviation Industry Corp of China, where he helped develop a mid-range hypersonic boost-glide vehicle capable of carrying DF-17 missiles to a range of up to 2,000 miles, the Express reported.

Sources say the scientist is also connected with a more recent ground-breaking hypersonic missile delivery system that can circle the globe before descending from space and use heat-seeking technology to strike any target on Earth.

The science community would call it a “Sputnik moment” after the Soviet satellite breakthrough in the late 1950s, while others said the launch of another warhead from the device was “scientifically impossible.”

While Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley stopped short of the Sputnik comparison, he acknowledged “it’s very close to that” — a fact that no doubt rocked the Pentagon.

The US has been beset by numerous test failures of hypersonic missiles. Photo: Pratt & Whitney.

Milley called the test of the weapon “a very significant technological event” that is just one element of China’s growing military strength.

To have any inside inkling, whatsoever, as to how China achieved this, would be a huge boost to US military contractors and designers.

Why did he defect?

Well, it had nothing to do with political dissent toward his Beijing masters, or, some higher calling of compassion and humanity. It seldom is.

Usually, it’s about money, or, the lure of the western lifestyle, or even a woman.

Rather, sources said it was a deep resentment at having been passed over for promotion, that drove him to make contact with a British intelligence asset in Hong Kong last year.

During that first, tentative approach, he told the middleman he possessed detailed information about the hypersonic glide vehicle.

The claim would set off alarm bells at Vauxhall Cross, the London HQ of the Secret Intelligence Service, more commonly known as MI6.

Firing squad

Knowing he faced a firing squad if discovered, he demanded asylum for himself and his wife and child, sources said.

Extractions like this are difficult but possible. They require absolute secrecy and exceptional tradecraft.

A three-person team, comprising two intelligence officers and a technical specialist, were readied to deploy to Hong Kong. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was also duly informed of the walk-in.

It was a huge gamble, operating in China’s backyard — but MI6 officials thought the payoff was worth the risk.

Cautious that the scientist could be a Beijing plant, a cat-and-mouse game developed over the next few days in which the scientist’s credentials were “copperbottomed” — the English way of saying “guaranteed.”

It was during this process that the technician — an avid fan of cricket who is believed to have once studied in England — began to reveal select details about China’s latest hypersonic development, the Express reported.

An artist’s impression of hypersonic launch missiles. Image: Courtesy Raytheon / Nastco

Eventually, a plan was hatched in which he and his family would travel to the former British colony using a specially developed route.

Once there, the scientist was spirited to a secure location where he was debriefed by the two men and a woman who made up the special MI6 team.

While most of the technical information offered by the scientist was carried in his head, he was also able to smuggle out technical data, the Express reported.

The MI6 team was joined by a two-man team from the CIA. A day was given over for a lengthy debriefing before arrangements were made to fly to a more secure location — a US airbase in Germany — then on to America via the UK.

According to Scientific American, hypersonic weapons are touted not only for their speed but also for their stealth and maneuverability.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles, which follow an elliptical path into space before plunging down toward their target, reach speeds above Mach 20, but they have predictable trajectories for most of their flight and typically can maneuver only briefly, after they reenter the atmosphere.

Evade interceptors

In contrast, hypersonic weapons would fly deep within the atmosphere most of the time, using lift generated by airflow to weave around and try to evade interceptors.

Approaching at such low altitudes, these weapons would avoid detection by ground-based radar systems until close to their target, making them more difficult, if not impossible to stop.

Both China and Russia are far ahead in this technology, a concern that has forced the US to spend billions on hypersonic development. So far, however, a series of high-profile failures have derailed this progress.

A defection of this importance could help reverse America’s record of hypersonic disappointment.

Speaking about the defection, an intelligence source told the Daily Express: “He was extremely co-operative. This is an intelligent man; a man who keenly follows cricket but prefers Jack Daniels to lager, a man who has played a key role in the development of hypersonic weapons in China, and a man who felt aggrieved by the way he had been treated.

“His decision to make contact wasn’t taken on ideological grounds but rather in a firm belief that his talents should be recognized and more greatly appreciated.”

The source added: “The fact we are in possession of certain details about the operational capability of this hypersonic glide missile puts us in a position we did not expect to be in at this time.

“It will probably buy us two years. We estimate it will take China two years to be able to make changes in its program sufficiently substantial as to render this intelligence ineffective. In this sphere, two years is a very long time.”