By Joe Battaglia
U.S. officials and defense analysts have indicated that China’s multiyear cyberespionage operation yielded sensitive technology and aircraft secrets which it was able to use in building its new J-20 stealth fighter jet.
The Chinese cyberspying occurred in 2007, when it compromised military contractors Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman, and included stealing plans for the Pentagon’s $300 billion Joint Strike Fighter project — the Defense Department’s costliest weapons program ever. Designs for nearly two dozen other major weapons systems were also breached, The Washington Post reported.
Other weapons systems accessed by Chinese hackers include the Patriot missile system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, and the Army’s ballistic missile interceptor program
The Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35 Lightning II, is the most technically challenging weapons program the Pentagon has ever attempted. The plane relies on 7.5 million lines of computer code, which the Government Accountability Office told The Wall Street Journal is more than triple the amount used in the current top Air Force fighter.
For years, China expressed frustration that its military lagged behind the U.S. technologically. While experts were skeptical that the Asian country would be able to field a stealth fighter, it shocked the world in January 2011, showing off a fully functional design.
“You’ve seen significant improvements in Chinese military capabilities through their willingness to spend, their acquisitions of advanced Russian weapons, and from their cyberespionage campaign,” James A. Lewis, a cyberpolicy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the the Post. “Ten years ago, I used to call the [People’s Liberation Army] the world’s largest open-air military museum. I can’t say that now.”
China’s cost-effective strategy to update its military appears to have been twofold. It purchased some technologies at discounted rates from U.S. Cold War-era rivals such as Russia. Other technologies it simply stole from the United States and built itself.
Stolen data was obtained by a Chinese military unit called a Technical Reconnaissance Bureau based in the Chengdu province. The data was then passed to the state-run Aviation Industry Corp. The Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, a subsidiary of AVIC, used the stolen data in building the J-20.
In a Jan. 20 article, the Global Times, China’s official Communist Party newspaper, bragged about how key technologies used for the F-35 Lightning II were “completely obtained” by the government, according to The Washington Times. The article stopped short of claiming those technologies were acquired directly from the United States.
Recent photographs published on Chinese websites showing a newer version of the J-20 seem to confirm theft of F-35 data. The new version of the radar-evading aircraft had incorporated several design upgrades since the first demonstrator aircraft was revealed in 2011.
One of its most significant weapons enhancements is a new electro-optical targeting system under its nose. Protruding engine nozzles seen in the earlier version have been hidden in an attempt to further reduce the jet’s radar signature. The newest J-20 also appeared with a different radar-absorbing coating.
Du Wenlong, a Chinese Academy of Military Sciences official, told Chinese state television on Feb. 20 that the new J-20’s shortened exhaust nozzles and tail and vertical fin modifications were designed to reduce radar detection. He added that a “revolutionary” breakthrough allowed the twin engines to increase both power and reliability.
Richard Fisher, a Chinese weapon systems specialist with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the new J-20 was flight-tested on March 1 and demonstrated the enhanced fifth-generation jet fighter features. He termed the implementation of these enhancements to be “very curious.”
In 2012, Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management, warned that cyberattacks, such as the one executed by the Chinese, place the country at risk.
“Make no mistake, America is under attack by digital bombs,” McCaul said, according to CBS News.
He added that the theft of $1 trillion in intellectual property was a “serious economic issue,” and that the theft of F-35 blueprints would enable China to, “manufacture those planes and then guard against those planes.”