China appears to have delivered one of its most telling blows in the covert cyber-conflict with the US, after confidential reports indicated that critical weapons systems in the States have been compromised in hacks orchestrated by the Chinese regime.
The revelation comes via the Washington Post, which claims that more than two dozen systems have been breached, including designs critical to US missile defences, as well as combat aircraft and ships. The Post was supplied with a confidential report prepared for Pentagon leaders by the Defense Science Board, an advisory group comprising government and civilian experts.
Senior military officials believe the attacks are part of an ongoing cyber-espionage campaign from China against American industry and government agencies, though the report does not accuse the Chinese of stealing any designs in the breaches cited.
The importance of the projects compromised will nevertheless cause alarm in Washington, with some weapons forming “the backbone of the Pentagon’s regional missile defence for Asia, Europe and the Persian Gulf,” according to the Post. These include one of the most expensive weapons ever built – the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is due to cost around $1.4 trillion (£927 billion).
A Pentagon spokesman did not address the Defense Science Board’s report explicitly when questioned, but told the Post, “The Department of Defense has growing concerns about the global threat to economic and national security from persistent cyber-intrusions aimed at the theft of intellectual property, trade secrets and commercial data, which threatens the competitive edge of U.S. businesses like those in the Defense Industrial Base.”
The statement echoes the worry of falling victim to cyber-espionage expressed by government officials in February, when Robert Hormats, undersecretary of state for economic growth, said, "We have repeatedly raised our concerns about trade secret theft by any means at the highest levels with senior Chinese officials and we will continue to do so."
“A hacker in China can acquire source code from a software company in Virginia without leaving his or her desk,” Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. added at the time.
The Pentagon is believed to be unwilling to launch a full-scale cyber-war with China at present, though President Obama has already been cleared to escalate offensive action if it becomes necessary. This may be the case sooner rather than later, with US energy companies also coming under attack - this time from Iran - according to government officials last week.
“What they [the Iranian regime] have done so far has certainly been noticed, and they should be cautious,” warned one official.