China’s cyber-theft and cyber-espionage operations are accelerating to the point that they can “degrade core U.S. operational and technological advantages,” according to a congressionally mandated assessment of the Chinese military the Pentagon issued Friday.
Last year, for example, Chinese intelligence officers were indicted for allegedly conspiring to steal technological information on turbofan engines. China’s efforts to steal sensitive U.S. military-grade equipment more broadly targeted aviation and antisubmarine warfare technologies last year.
“The threat and the challenge is persistent. The Chinese remain very aggressive in their use of cyber,” Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall G. Schriver said Friday during a press briefing on the report.
China’s efforts to boost its technological prowess go beyond thefts and intrusions, the Pentagon said. Beijing also leverages its intelligence services and Chinese nationals’ access to technologies to try building up its military capabilities while checking adversaries’, the report notes.
And although the Pentagon assesses that China believes its capabilities and personnel “lag behind” the U.S. right now, they’re working to flip that balance of power. As Schriver noted, “they’ve invested a lot in cyber” and are making “rapid progress” in the cyber domain.
“We’re seeing a very aggressive modernization effort backed by resourcing,” he added. “For almost two decades they’ve had almost near double-digit growth in their official defense budgets — their defense budgets might actually be higher than that.”
China’s People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) efforts to bolster its digital capabilities are spurred on in part due to the low cost of using offensive cyber-tools to target adversaries’ critical military and civilian infrastructure, the Pentagon assesses.
China also sees using cyber-measures in warfare was a way to demonstrate resolve and technical acumen to adversaries. In particular, researchers working for the Chinese PLA advocate using offensive cyber-operations to prevent an adversary from taking military action against China, according to the report.
The Pentagon assesses that in some cases, the Chinese may use a combination of cyberattacks and kinetic, more conventional attacks to gain the upper hand in the early phases of a conflict. For instance, the Chinese PLA have advocated in writings that targeting command and control and logistics networks in the early stages of a conflict to “completely disrupt” them has been effective in the past, according to the report.
U.S. efforts to counteract any advances China is making have expanded in the last few years, Schriver said.
“What’s changed is our level of awareness and the steps we’re taking to reduce our own vulnerabilities and working with allies and partners to do the same,” Schriver said.
Of particular concern for the Pentagon is the blueprint China may have of U.S. military networks as a result of cyber-espionage, according to the report. The intrusions, which have focused on gathering information in support of Chinese intelligence operations against the defense industrial base, have also targeted the U.S. diplomatic, economic, and academic sectors, the DOD assesses. Although these espionage operations can inform Chinese diplomacy or serve as fodder for China’s military modernization, they could serve a more destructive purpose, according to the Pentagon.
Another potential area of concern is the theater command-level organization the Chinese army created in 2016 to centralize space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare missions, known as the Strategic Support Force (SSF), and the threat it poses to Taiwan. Specifically, the report points out the SSF enhances the PLA’s ability to execute cyberwarfare, electronic warfare, and space-based reconnaissance on Taiwan’s military units.
This is of particular note for Chinese and U.S. relations, since although the People’s Republic of China considers Taiwan a part of China, the U.S. only acknowledges that China holds that position on the issue — without taking on that position itself. The U.S. meanwhile maintains a relationship, albeit unofficial, with Taiwan. As part of those ties, the U.S. provides military equipment and weapons to Taiwan.