China has an ingenious way of saving billions in military research and development: Just steal it from other countries, primarily the United States.
The Washington Post reports that Chinese military hackers have accessed data from 37 American weapons programs and 29 other defense-related technologies. Some observers think the stolen information is why China’s J-20 stealth fighters are so similar to the U.S.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The Post’s report comes on the heels of accusations earlier this month from the Obama administration that China has also hacked into computers of U.S. government agencies, including ones with responsibility for parts of the U.S. power grid, water supply, and oil and gas pipelines.
China’s cyber spies, who reportedly operate out of a nondescript building in Shanghai, don’t just pose an economic threat by stealing U.S. R&D and forcing U.S. defense contractors to spend millions on better security. They potentially could compromise America’s military capacity to defend against attack.
Consider one of the weapons systems hacked by Chinese cyber spies: the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system ordered deployed to Guam after North Korea ramped up its missile testing. If China were to share the stolen information with North Korea, that expensive defense system could be virtually useless.
Security experts fear that the stolen information will enable China to figure out ways to neutralize U.S. weapons and defense systems. And they fear that the Chinese will be able to install harmful cyber “back doors” in components supplied by subcontractors, whose computers might be easier to penetrate than big defense companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
China has consistently denied the hacking accusations, but U.S. sources estimate that it’s responsible for about 70 percent of the intrusions. And it accuses the U.S. of doing its own cyber spying, which is probably true. However, it should be pointed out that China doesn’t have as much intellectual property and military R&D to steal as the U.S. does.
President Barack Obama plans to discuss cyber spying next month when he meets with China’s president. But it’s hard to imagine China would just stop doing something that has such a lucrative payout with few, if any, repercussions.
In this case, the best offense is a strong defense. The U.S. needs to step up its security measures against cyber intrusions and work with the world community to devise penalties for such flagrant thievery.