Confidential report lists U.S. weapons system designs compromised by Chinese cyberspies

Designs for many of the nation’s most sensitive advanced weapons systems have been compromised by Chinese hackers, according to a report prepared for the Pentagon and to officials from government and the defense industry.

Among more than two dozen major weapons systems whose designs were breached were programs critical to U.S. missile defenses and combat aircraft and ships, according to a previously undisclosed section of a confidential report prepared for Pentagon leaders by the Defense Science Board.

The Defense Science Board, a senior advisory group made up of government and civilian experts, did not accuse the Chinese of stealing the designs. But senior military and industry officials with knowledge of the breaches said the vast majority were part of a widening Chinese campaign of espionage against U.S. defense contractors and government agencies.

The significance and extent of the targets help explain why the Obama administration has escalated its warnings to the Chinese government to stop what Washington sees as rampant cyber­theft.

In January, the advisory panel warned in the public version of its report that the Pentagon is unprepared to counter a full-scale cyber-conflict. The list of compromised weapons designs is contained in a confidential version, and it was provided to The Washington Post.

Some of the weapons form the backbone of the Pentagon’s regional missile defense for Asia, Europe and the Persian Gulf. The designs included those for the advanced Patriot missile system, known as PAC-3; an Army system for shooting down ballistic missiles, known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD; and the Navy’s Aegis ballistic-missile defense system.

Also identified in the report are vital combat aircraft and ships, including the F/A-18 fighter jet, the V-22 Osprey, the Black Hawk helicopter and the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship, which is designed to patrol waters close to shore.

Also on the list is the most expensive weapons system ever built — the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is on track to cost about $1.4 trillion. The 2007 hack of that project was reported previously.

China, which is pursuing a comprehensive long-term strategy to modernize its military, is investing in ways to overcome the U.S. military advantage — and cyber-espionage is seen as a key tool in that effort, the Pentagon noted this month in a report to Congress on China. For the first time, the Pentagon specifically named the Chinese government and military as the culprit behind intrusions into government and other computer systems.

In addition, a recent classified National Intelligence Estimate on economic cyber-espionage concluded that China was by far the most active country in stealing intellectual property from U.S. companies.

The Chinese government insists that it does not conduct ­cyber-espionage on U.S. agencies or companies, and government spokesmen often complain that Beijing is a victim of U.S. cyberattacks.

The confidential list of compromised weapons system designs and technologies represents the clearest look at what the Chinese are suspected of targeting. When the list was read to independent defense experts, they said they were shocked by the extent of the cyber-espionage and the potential for compromising U.S. defenses.

“That’s staggering,” said Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, a think tank that focuses on Asia security issues. “These are all very critical weapons systems, critical to our national security. When I hear this in totality, it’s breathtaking.”

“You’ve seen significant improvements in Chinese military capabilities through their willingness to spend, their acquisitions of advanced Russian weapons, and from their cyber-espionage campaign,” said James A. Lewis, a cyber-policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Ten years ago, I used to call the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] the world’s largest open-air military museum. I can’t say that now.

The public version of the science board report noted that such cyber-espionage and cyber-sabotage could impose “severe consequences for U.S. forces engaged in combat.” Those consequences could include severed communication links critical to the operation of U.S. forces. Data corruption could misdirect U.S. operations. Weapons could fail to operate as intended. Planes, satellites or drones could crash, the report said.

In other words, Stokes said, “if they have a better sense of a THAAD design or PAC-3 design, then that increases the potential of their ballistic missiles being able to penetrate our or our allies’ missile defenses.”

Winslow T. Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight, made a similar point. “If they got into the combat systems, it enables them to understand it to be able to jam it or otherwise disable it,” he said. “If they’ve got into the basic algorithms for the missile and how they behave, somebody better get out a clean piece of paper and start to design all over again.”

“In many cases, they don’t know they’ve been hacked until the FBI comes knocking on their door,” said a senior military official who was not authorized to speak on the record. “This is billions of dollars of combat advantage for China. They’ve just saved themselves 25 years of research and development. It’s nuts.”

The systems on the science board’s list are built by a variety of top defense contractors, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman. None of the companies would comment about whether their systems have been breached.

But Northrop Grumman spokes­man Randy Belote acknowledged the company “is experiencing greater numbers of attempts to penetrate its computer networks” and said the firm is “vigilant” about protecting its networks.

The Defense Science Board report also listed broad technologies that have been compromised, such as drone video systems, nanotechnology, tactical data links and electronic warfare systems — all areas where the Pentagon and Chinese military are investing heavily.

“Put all that together — the design compromises and the technology theft — and it’s pretty significant,” Stokes said.

Full article: Confidential report lists U.S. weapons system designs compromised by Chinese cyberspies (Washington Post)

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