China is a lead cyberattacker of US military computers, Pentagon reports

China is especially interested in gleaning how best to defend its own computer networks from cyberattack, says a Pentagon report on cyberwar threats. But China is also improving its offensive abilities.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and and China's Minister of National Defense Gen. Liang Guanglie, speak during a news conference at the Pentagon, last week, in Washington.

China has long been considered a dangerous thorn in the Pentagon’s side when it comes to cybersecurity. 

Now, a new Department of Defense report warns that not only is China responsible for many of the cyberattacks on US military computer systems, but that the country continues to launch cyber operations that threaten the US economy as well, making the Chinese "the world's most active and persistent perpetrators of economic espionage." 

These developments are “something we continue to pay very, very close attention to,” David Helvey, acting deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Asia security, said Friday. “I think their continued efforts in this area reflect the importance that they’re placing on developing capabilities for cyberwarfare.” 

True, China is particularly interested in how best to defend its own computer networks, but more troubling, senior defense officials say, is that the Chinese military is bettering its ability to launch cyberattacks as well. 

“We note that China’s investing in not only capabilities to better defend their networks, but also they’re looking at ways to use cyber for offensive operations,” added Mr. Helvey during a Pentagon briefing.

The People’s Liberation Army has set up a dedicated cyberunit to develop cyberwarfare technologies. “There is the potential for these types of operations to be very disruptive,” he added. “I mean, that’s one of the things about military operations in cyberspace – that there can be cascading effects that are hard to predict.”

One such impact includes cyberespionage on US companies, which US officials estimate has cost America billions of dollars in revenue. A report released last year by the US intelligence agencies called China’s cyberespionage a “persistent threat to US economic security.” 

Two US House members went further: "Every morning in China, thousands of highly trained computer spies now wake up with one mission: Steal U.S. intellectual property that the Chinese can use to further their economic growth," Reps. Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D) of Maryland, chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote in an op-ed article last month. "American companies are hemorrhaging research and development on products ranging from fighter engines, to pesticides, to cutting-edge information technology."

Chinese leaders tend to deny such attacks. “I can hardly agree with the proposition that the cyberattacks directed to the United States are directly coming from China,” Gen. Liang Guanglie, China’s minister of national defense, said during a press conference at the Pentagon, where he was visiting, earlier this month.

On this point, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was elliptical as he stood beside his Chinese counterpart. “It’s true, as the general pointed out, that obviously there are other countries, actors, others involved in some of the attacks that both our countries receive.”

But “some” does not account for the “many” cyberattacks coming from China cited in the most recent Pentagon assessment of Chinese military might. 

Helvey declined to point the finger directly at the Chinese government, demurring when asked if that’s who is ultimately responsible for the attacks. “When you say ‘from China,’ you mean from the Chinese government, presumably, right?” a reporter wondered.

“I just said it comes from China. I didn’t specify the specific attribution,” Helvey responded. “But we do have some concern about a number of these ... particular operations that appear to originate from China.” 

Even as China develops advanced military capabilities, along with greater proficiency in cyberattacks, US officials stress that the Pentagon must avoid being caught off guard by Chinese advances in other weapons systems as well, such as advanced submarines, space technologies, and missile defense. 

“That is something that we have to anticipate and expect. I mean, we’re paying very careful attention to China’s military modernization,” Helvey said. “But we’ve been surprised in the past, and we may very well be surprised in terms of seeing new weapons and equipment in the future.” 

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