China‘s been building itself some rather nice fighter jets. Unfortunately, the high-grade polymers required for these planes are hard to come by. Specifically, one needs an export license to legally obtain the carbon fiber used in jet construction. Illegally, however, is another thing altogether. Even then, it’s difficult and fraught with peril. The feds have supposedly busted an international plot to smuggle carbon fiber to China, which isn’t terribly surprisingly.
Federal prosecutors charged a Chinese man named Ming Suan Zhang with “attempting to illegally export aerospace-grade carbon fiber” on Wednesday. Wired explains why Zhang would go to the trouble:
Aerospace-grade carbon fiber isn’t just simple plastic. It’s a specialized — and expensive — polymer used in nuclear plants and to build the fuselages of military aircraft like the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. $4 million would buy about two tons’ worth of M60JB carbon fiber, the type prosecutors allege Zhang sought to acquire. And as Zhang is likely now well aware, the U.S. government is not pleased when people attempt to export the material without a license.
If China’s relying on illegally smuggling materials out of the United States then their fighter jets might be worse off than previously thought. Sure, some smuggling probably actually occurs, but other attempts fail miserably like Zhang’s. Not exactly a net positive.
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