It's Time to Wake Up: Chinese Hacking Is Eroding U.S. Military Superiority

Countering Chinese cyber espionage must be a top priority

By Mackenzie Eaglen & Charles Morrison

Earlier this month, the latest cyber-attack against J.P. Morgan garnered national headlines. And most Americans are aware of – if not affected by – last year’s Target and this year’s Home Depot data breaches.

Yet many Americans know much less about the regular and sophisticated theft of many of the U.S. military’s cutting-edge weapons systems. The cybercrime has reached the point where the FBI has warned American companies about a group of sophisticated Chinese government-backed hackers that has been working for years to steal economic and national security secrets from the U.S. government and private contractors. The notice comes after the Justice Department indicted five People’s Liberation Army officials in May for commercial espionage.

Systematic Chinese cyber espionage has resulted in significant damage to U.S. national security. However, Congress seems to be doing little to help. Part of it can surely be chalked up to what has been called “data breach fatigue.” Presumably the same mindset has infected the nation’s capital.

But the Pentagon cares about these breaches, and Congress should start paying serious attention. Last year, the Washington Post reported on a classified Defense Department report that revealed Chinese hackers have compromised the designs of more than two dozen U.S. military weapons systems. The list of impacted programs reads like a catalogue of weapons critical to current U.S. military dominance, including the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F/A-18 fighter jet, the Patriot missile system, the Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system, the Navy’s Aegis ballistic missile-defense program, the V-22 Osprey, UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, and the Littoral Combat Ship. The Washington Free Beacon reports that other data stolen by the Chinese include the P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft and RQ-4 Global Hawk drones.

As the Chinese continue their military modernization while undermining America’s, Pentagon officials have increasingly sounded the alarm that U.S. military technological superiority is at risk. This technological superiority, in the words of Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Frank Kendall, “is being challenged in ways that I have not seen for decades, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. Technological superiority is not assured and we cannot be complacent about our posture. This is not a future problem. It is a ‘here-now’ problem.”

Many Pentagon leaders have looked to “leap-ahead” technologies to address this growing problem, investing in “seed corn” that will eventually sprout into game-changing technologies and capabilities. Yet, alarmingly, the Chinese have also compromised many of the next-generation technologies that the U.S. military is relying upon to maintain a leg-up in its competition with China. According to the Free Beacon, compromised technologies include “know-how related to directed energy weapons, drone video systems, technical data links, satellite communications, electronic warfare systems, and electromagnetic aircraft launch systems.”

If this trend continues unabated, the consequences would be palpable for security in East Asia and beyond. The better Beijing is able to counter the U.S. military’s most advanced capabilities of both today and tomorrow, the lower the threshold will be for aggression and coercion in the region.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has already said as much. In a recent defense strategy, he predicted that continued inadequate defense budgets over the next 10 years will exacerbate “the risk of interstate conflict in east Asia.”

Still others are sounding the alarm. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission found last year that there is “an urgent need for Washington to take action to prompt Beijing to change its approach to cyberspace and deter future Chinese cyber theft.” The Commission’s 2014 report, due out next month, promises to be even blunter about the growing challenge. Whether it will be enough to spur action on Capitol Hill remains an open question.

Policymakers should be very concerned that China already has many of the proverbial keys to America’s military supremacy kingdom—not only the information on how our forces achieve it today, but also how they plan to maintain it for tomorrow. Worse, if current trends continue, cyber breaches will only accelerate declining U.S. military technological supremacy and put the lives of service members at increasing risk.

Countering Chinese cyber espionage must become a top priority for the executive branch and Congress before yet another cyber theft exposes what little is left of the secrets that help uphold America’s technological supremacy.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow for national security at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Charles Morrison is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute's Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

Mackenzie Eaglen & Charles Morrison
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