The jailing of a South Korean man in the United States for his part in a plot to obtain engines for Blackhawk helicopters and ship them to China highlights a growing problem facing U.S. officials: How best to guard sensitive American military equipment and technology and keep it out of the hands of potential adversaries.

Reuters reported that Kwonhwan Park and his Malaysian company, SGS, told the State Department in an export application the helicopter engines were destined either for the Malaysian or South Korean military.

The engines were initially shipped to Malaysia, the report said, but were eventually sent on to China.

In November, Park pleaded guilty of violating the Arms Export Control Act and conspiracy charges. He was sentenced to 32 months in prison by U.S. District Judge Mark Kravitz. Park is eligible for deportation upon his release, officials said.

Any defense or military items being shipped out of the United States must first be approved by the State Department. The final destination of the equipment must also be disclosed in the application process.

Park also attempted to obtain another four engines for the Sikorsky S-70 helicopter he said were for the South Korean army, but U.S. officials discovered the South Korean military had not ordered them.

When arrested at Washington, D.C.’s Dulles Airport in April 2004, Park was heading for Beijing and had a sophisticated night-vision goggle system in his possession, Reuters reported.

Though Park’s arrest seems like small potatoes – illegally shipping helicopter engines – it is part of a growing trend involving U.S. military technology that is alarming U.S. officials and lawmakers.

Concern over the theft and unauthorized transfer of America’s sophisticated military technologies to China and others was emphasized by U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., in the Aug. 25 edition of Military Information Technology, a defense industry trade publication. According to Forbes, the problem may be impossible to fix.

“… If the Chinese want U.S. technology, they will find a way to get it,” he writes. “Despite official U.S. monitoring and restrictions on the export of sensitive dual-use equipment to China, the Communist regime in Beijing still manages to acquire as much American technology as it needs to modernize its armed forces.

“… We know that China is actively gaining access to our technology, whether directly from the United States, from our allies or from other nations,” he continued. “We know that Chinese leaders intend to use these technologies for the modernization of their armed forces, and most importantly, we know that China continues to have a fundamentally hostile security attitude toward the United States.”

Israel, in particular, has been a long-standing concern for U.S. defense officials, in terms of unauthorized transfers of U.S. military technology. Since before 2000, the Jewish state has been involved in a number of high-profile military deals with China and other nations – some involving U.S. technology transfers.

In 2000, the U.S. objected strongly to Israel’s planned sale of a Phalcon early-warning radar system, a $2 billion deal that would have given China advanced capabilities similar to American AWACS aircraft. Israel finally agreed to cancel the sale over strenuous Chinese objections.

That and subsequent military sales have led to increased tensions between Tel Aviv and Washington, culminating in a Bush administration threat to cut off military cooperation with Israel.

The threat, however, was mitigated earlier this month when the administration announced it had reached an agreement with the Israeli government that the Jewish state would consult with Washington before selling its military technology abroad, much of which has either come from the U.S. or co-developed with American defense companies.

“It does not create a list of prohibited items that Israel cannot sell,” said Pentagon spokesman Maj. Paul Swiergosz. “It does not threaten; it does not impose sanctions. What it does do is provide a consultative process that will allow the two countries to reach a common understanding with respect to technology security policy.

“We want to make sure that the technology over which we do have some control does not, ultimately, facilitate the creation of weapons systems that we might have to deal with, in some sense,” he continued. Israel receives about $2 billion annually in U.S. military aid.

As for China, it’s primary weapons supplier is Russia, but Israel – which has a flourishing arms export industry – ranks second.

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