Chinese hackers breach key US weapons designs

Olivier Knox

Chinese hackers have compromised the designs of some of America’s most sensitive and advanced weapons systems—including vital parts of the nation’s missile defenses, fighter aircraft and warships—the Washington Post reported Tuesday.

The Post cited a report prepared for the Pentagon by the Defense Science Board, which groups government officials and private sector experts. The document, “Resilient Military Systems and the Advanced Cyber Threat,” paints a grim picture of cyber-espionage emanating from China only 10 days before President Barack Obama meets in California with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time.

“I’m sure it will be a topic of discussion,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.

Beijing, riding a wave of robust economic growth, has been building up its military—and while the report does not accuse China's government of stealing the designs, such intrusions could help the world's most populous country enhance its armed forces.

The Post published the list of compromised systems here. It includes drone video systems, “directed energy” (a category that includes lasers and the like) and advanced Patriot missile systems. Also compromised were designs for the F/A 18 fighter jet, V-22 Osprey, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship meant to prowl the coasts. The list also includes the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) designed to shoot down ballistic missiles.

The report coincided with an Australian news report that Chinese hackers illegally accessed the designs for the new top secret headquarters of Australia's intelligence service, including communications cable layouts, server locations and security systems.

American officials have complained publicly and privately about Chinese cyber-espionage. Obama vowed in his State of the Union Address to take steps to protect the U.S. government and American businesses from such attacks—though he did not specifically name China, or Chinese hackers, as the main culprits.

But National Security Adviser Tom Donilon took aim at China in a blunt speech in March to the Asia Society in New York.

"From the president on down, this has become a key point of concern and discussion with China at all levels of our governments—and it will continue to be," Donilon warned.

"The United States will do all it must to protect our national networks, critical infrastructure, and our valuable public and private sector property. But, specifically with respect to the issue of cyber-enabled theft, we seek three things from the Chinese side," Donilon said. "First, we need a recognition of the urgency and scope of this problem and the risk it poses—to international trade, to the reputation of Chinese industry and to our overall relations. Second, Beijing should take serious steps to investigate and put a stop to these activities. Finally, we need China to engage with us in a constructive direct dialogue to establish acceptable norms of behavior in cyberspace."

The White House declined to comment specifically on the report. But a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Laura Lucas, noted that in general "cybersecurity is one of this administration's top priorities, and we have long said that we are concerned about cyber intrusions emanating from China."

"What we have been seeking from China is for it to investigate our concerns and to start a dialogue with us on cyber issues," Lucas said, adding that the United States is "pleased" that China agreed last month to start a new working group to discuss the issue.

"Through such dialogue we seek longer-term changes in China's behavior, including by working together to establish norms against the theft of trade secrets and confidential business information," Lucas said. "This dialogue will take place within the context of our broader effort to build a cooperative partnership with China that solves shared global challenges."