Man Conspired To Export American Fighter Jet Engines To China

And military drones, too



F-35s range between $108 million and $134 million each, and the entire F-35 program is likely to run over a trillion dollars. Much easier to get it all for free.U.S. navy, via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Military technology is developed over years and guarded carefully. Modern planes are elaborate machines, full of specific parts and components that all have to work or else a multi-million dollar craft fails when it’s most needed. If you don't have the blueprint for a specific plane, there are two ways to figure out how to match its abilities. One is the painstaking process of building a similar plane independently by trial and error. The other option: just steal it. Steal it all.

Last night, the Justice Department announced Wenxia Man of San Diego was convicted by a federal jury in Florida for conspiring to export jet engines and a drone to China.

According to evidence presented at trial, between approximately March 2011 and June 2013, Man conspired with Xinsheng Zhang, who was located in China, to illegally acquire and export to China defense articles including: Pratt & Whitney F135-PW-100 engines used in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 turbofan engines used in the F-22 Raptor fighter jet; General Electric F110-GE-132 engines designed for the F-16 fighter jet; the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper/Predator B Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, capable of firing Hellfire Missiles; and technical data for each of these defense articles. During the course of the investigation, when talking to an HSI undercover agent, Man referred to Zhang, as a “technology spy” who worked on behalf of the Chinese military to copy items obtained from other countries and stated that he was particularly interested in stealth technology.

The F-35 is America’s newest jet fighter, versions of which will serve with the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. In total, American plans to purchase more than 2,400 F-35s, and they’ll serve for at least 30 years, likely longer. The F-22 is America’s premier and exclusive air-to-air superiority fighter, built to outfight any other plane in the sky. While there are only about 187 F-22s in service, the Air Force has recently talked about restarting their production line. F-16s serve with many Air Forces across the globe, and the United States still employs over 1,200 of these versatile fighters.

While all of these planes are far more than just their engines, they would be nothing without the jets that make them go, and it’s much easier to build a plane to rival them around the same engine, or a similar engine.

Besides the jet engines, Man attempted to export a MQ-9 Reaper drone. Reapers--the larger, deadlier successors to Predator drones--are surveillance platforms armed with hellfire missiles, regularly used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to attack insurgents or suspected terrorist hideouts. Curiously, Reapers aren't terribly useful against militaries that can put aircraft into the sky. Basically any fighter can shoot one down, and the ground-focused drones lack the situational awareness to even see aerial attacks coming. What could China gain from a Reaper? They could use it to improve their own military drones, or possibly develop new weapons for shooting them down.

This is hardly the first attempt by China to steal American military technology, and it likely it won't be the last. Man was convicted of "conspiring to export and cause the export of defense articles without the required license," and she faces at least 20 years in prison for this attempt.