New BIS Director Must Address PRC Increasing Sophistication in Nuke & Space Tech

The Pentagon’s 2021 Report to Congress shows the grimmest picture yet of the military and security developments in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC has “intelligentized” its military so that it can conduct simultaneous land, air, sea, cyber, and space operations to fight and win wars against a “strong enemy” like the U.S., coerce Taiwan, counter peripheral threats, and project global power. Its development in space is impressive and includes rocket launches, sophisticated satellite operations (including navigation integration with the Belt and Road Initiative to create a “Space Information Corridor”), and testing dual-use technologies for potential counterspace missions. The PRC’s space developments are integrated with hypersonics, including the recent feats of a missile circumnavigating the globe and then reaching a target, as well as spaceplanes. While speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum (see also CNN, Washington Times), Space Force Gen. David D. Thompson warned of the PRC’s acceleration in the space domain, noting that it is on track to surpass the U.S. in capabilities by 2030.

It took the PRC 37 years to launch its first 100 Long March rockets, but the most recent 100 Long March launches were completed in less than three years, notes With some 40 launches, 2021 is a record-breaking year for the PRC. The expendable Long March rockets are named for the infamous 1934 trek by the Red Army during the Chinese Civil War. The key question is how and why the PRC, after struggling for years, has sudden expertise in space. Is it indigenous development, tech transfer from foreign aerospace firms working in China, theft of critical tech, licensing critical U.S. technologies, or a combination thereof?   

Historically much of the PRC’s space development was undertaken by explicit government agencies. This makes it easy to identify and restrict sales of critical technologies, though the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) was only added to Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) Entity List in 2019, along with its aliases the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology, Shanghai Institute of Space, and the Shanghai Space Tower. Indeed aerospace and propulsion is a long-standing and sizable category in BIS’s Commerce Control List. This includes space launch vehicles, spacecraft, buses, payloads, and on-board systems and equipment, specially designed for spacecraft.

In recent years startups have taken an increasing role in space innovation in the PRC. These entities are more nimble and can fly below the radar of controls meant to restrict technologies from military end users and uses. Recent research by the Center for Security & Emerging Technology showed how hundreds of artificial intelligence startups in the PRC have been able to avoid the BIS tripwire while contributing to the PRC military. It would not be surprising to find the same dynamic in space tech, and this presents an important challenge for the next BIS Director, a position that has been without confirmed leadership for 4 years.

Alan Estevez is the nominee for the position and is considered an interesting choice for his defense, security, and supply chain background. His selection could signal a greater emphasis on security at the agency.

Christian Zur who led the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Procurement and Space Industry Council for more than decade observes, “Few people are as well-positioned as Estevez to step into the BIS position and tackle the enormity of challenges posed by China’s use of U.S. technology for military and space applications. In particular, many Chinese commercial space start-ups maintain ties to governmental entities which only serves to underscore the strategic trade-offs ahead for Estevez should he assume the helm at BIS.”  

Stay tuned for a follow up post with observations from other experts on Estevez’s nomination and the Future of BIS.