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Was Shane Todd murdered over high-tech secrets?

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"It's widely recognized as a key technology for next-generation wireless base stations," said Jannie Luong, a spokeswoman for Huawei Technologies in an e-mail. "The development of GaN technology is commonplace across the entire telecommunications industry."

What would GaN do for China?

But to outside experts, the 1,000 project files on Todd's hard drive raise many questions. Perhaps most alarming is that the project appeared to have clear military uses, say those who have seen the files.

"There's a specification in there for high-efficiency and high-power amplifiers that covers a frequency band known to be radar," says Mr. Huettner. "It just smelled like defense work."

Just as Huawei would love to have the technology for its cell towers, the Chinese military would love to have it for its radar. If, hypothetically, missiles could be detected 400 miles away by conventional radar, radar equipped with GaN chips could detect missiles perhaps 600 to 800 miles away, experts say. That would increase critical reaction time. Similar upgrades could occur in missile-seeking (homing) capabilities and other crucial military applications.

"If the Chinese get a chip like this it would give them an order of magnitude increase in the capability of their radar systems," says Bernard "Bud" Cole, a retired US Navy captain and China military expert at the National War College. "It would increase Chinese ability to detect incoming aircraft and missiles and enhance their capabilities at sea with shipborne radar."

While the Chinese military has in recent years ramped up its ambitions, it still is playing catch-up, and the GaN chips would represent a significant prize.

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