China, Russia possibly stole IT missile data, GAO says

China and Russia may have stolen sensitive technical data, including information on missile guidance and control hardware and software, during 14 overseas launches of U.S. commercial communications satellites, according to a General Accounting Office report released today.

Lack of export licensing controls and technical monitoring on behalf of the departments of State, Commerce and Defense may have led to unauthorized transfers of technology to China and Russia that could allow them to improve the reliability and accuracy of offensive ballistic missiles, according to a report released today by GAO.

Missiles used to launch satellites rely on computer hardware for guidance and control that is similar to the hardware used in ballistic missiles. However, the software used to support guidance and control systems is highly tailored and requires detailed examination before technical data can be released to foreign countries.

The alleged transfers occurred during overseas launches of U.S. communications satellites that used Chinese- and Russian-made rockets—a standard practice throughout the satellite industry since 1990. However, State and Commerce have shared responsibility for managing the control of export licenses to foreign countries, and DOD has been responsible for reviewing technical data for release as well as providing on-site monitors for security reasons.

For eight out of 43 licensed launches that took place in China and Russia, Commerce did not require monitors, technology control plans and adherence to other safeguards, according to the GAO report. In addition, "DOD and State documents show that monitoring problems, unauthorized transfers of technology and other violations of export control regulations possibly occurred in 14 launch campaigns in China, Russia and Ukraine," the report states.

The report also states that two out of three cases where technology may have been transferred raised significant national security concerns.

The issue of satellite export controls first came to the forefront in 1995 and 1996, when DOD concluded that Hughes Space and Communications Co. and Space Systems Loral released sensitive technical data to Chinese authorities during the Apstar 2 and Intelsat 708 satellite launches. While the State Department determined that the release did not harm national security, State did conclude that the data could help China improve its ballistic missile programs.

GAO also concluded that pre-launch technical meetings, which can involve discussions of sensitive technology, "were not monitored in every case."

Moreover, "DOD officials stated that they did not know whether unauthorized transfers of controlled technology occurred at these and other unmonitored meetings and launches because they were not present," according to GAO.


  • innovation (Sergey Nivens/

    VA embraces procurement challenges at scale

    Steve Kelman applauds the Department of Veterans Affairs' ambitious attempt to move beyond one-off prize-based contests to combat veteran suicides more effectively.

  • big data AI health data

    Where did the ideas for shutdowns and social distancing come from?

    Steve Kelman offers another story about hero civil servants (and a good president).

Stay Connected


Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.