Chinese hackers accessed U.S. designs for advanced weapons systems, according to a report prepared for the Pentagon by the Defense Science Board. Senior military and industry officials said that it is part of a Chinese campaign of cybertheft and espionage targeting American defense contractors and government agencies.
The Washington Post gained access to the confidential version of the report early this week. A previous public version released in January warned that the Pentagon is vulnerable to full-scale cyber warfare.
The compromised designs include two dozen of the most advanced U.S. weapons systems, including the Patriot missile system, known as PAC-3; the Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD); and the Navy’s Aegis ballistic-missile defense system. These weapons make up the foundation of U.S. missile defense in Asia.
The F/A-18 fighter jet, the V-22 Osprey, and the Black Hawk helicopter are also among the designs breached. Broad technologies listed as compromised in the report include drone video systems, nanotechnology, tactical data links and electronic warfare systems.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon released a report specifically implicating the Chinese government as perpetrators of cyber-espionage against the U.S.
The Chinese government denies any involvement in the attacks.
In 2007, it was strongly suspected that the Chinese hacked the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—the most expensive weapons system ever built. That incident of cybertheft was thought to have accelerated the progress of their own version of the F-35. Experts fear that the latest designs will give China a competitive edge by saving them money in development costs. Such technological advancements could be exploited in military conflict.
Cyber-espionage and cyber-sabotage pose a uniquely startling threat. According to the report, cyber-attacks could sever military communication links, interrupt the operations of weapons systems, corrupt intelligence data, and cause planes, satellites, or drones to crash.
A senior military official told The Washington Post: “In many cases, [defense contractors] don’t know they’ve been hacked until the FBI comes knocking on their door.”
“This is billions of dollars of combat advantage for China,” the official said, “they’ve just saved themselves 25 years of research and development.”
The report does not clarify when the breach occurred or whether it happened at the level of the U.S. government, the defense contractors, or subcontractors.
White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment directly on the attack on Tuesday.
Carney did say President Barack Obama would discuss the issue of cybersecurity with Chinese president Xi Jinping at a summit in California in early June. This summit will be the first since Xi became president.