China | China’s armed drones appear built from stolen data from US cyber intrusions

China’s armed drones appear built from stolen data from US cyber intrusions

Bill Gertz December 29, 2015 12:37 AM (UTC+8)
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China’s vibrant military blogosphere presented a video this month revealing a missile-firing unmanned aerial vehicle in action, dropping bombs against ground targets.

The Caihong-4, or CH-4, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is a testament to the remarkable success of China’s military in copying vital high-technology weapons that currently are considered among the most cutting edge arms systems used in modern combat operations for both ground strikes and intelligence-gathering.

CH-4_ReaperThe one-minute, 37-second online posting shows takeoffs and landings of the drone. It was uploaded to the video-sharing website Youku Dec. 17. According to the blogger who posted it, the video was produced by 11th Academy of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, a drone developer and manufacturer.

The drone is shown launching two different types of bombs and the impact of their explosions on the ground. One is labeled a 50 kilogram, satellite-guided bomb and the second is an unguided CS/BBE2 50 kilogram aerial fragmentation bomb.

Photo analysis of the CH-4 shows the remote-controlled aircraft is very similar to the US military’s front-line combat UAV, the MQ-9 Reaper.

Both aircraft are about the same size and wing-span and both sport identical V-tails, landing gear, imaging pods and propeller-driven rear engines.

The only major difference is the Predator’s engine intake is located on top of the aircraft while the CH-4’s is underneath.

There is no evidence the Chinese directly stole design information through cyber attacks against the Reaper manufacturer, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.

But in the words of a former National Security Agency director, retired Gen. Keith Alexander, the likelihood exists Beijing acquired drone designs and technology through cyber espionage. “There are two types of companies: those that have been hacked, and know it, and those that have been hacked and don’t know it,” Alexander said in a recent speech.

The Pentagon’s Defense Science Board warned in a 2012 report on automated defense systems that China was aggressively pursuing unmanned aircraft development and were “copying other successful designs” to speed up their drone programs. “The scope and speed of unmanned-aircraft development in China is a wake up call that has both industrial and military implications,” the report said.

China in 2012 lagged behind US drone programs but has “clearly leverage all available information on Western unmanned systems development.”

In three years since the report was published the Chinese have managed to close the gap with the United States on drone development.

Additionally, Chinese military writings also indicate Beijing is working to counter US drones by interrupting their communications links. The May 2015 issue of the technical journal “Winged Missiles,” published by the PLA’s Electrical Engineering Institute, discussed how its done.

“Detecting a UAV system’s remote link signals is important for countering UAVs,” the authors note.

On Dec. 1, another Chinese website, the social media outlet Tencent News, published a report on Chinese drones, including photos of the Gongji-1 attack drone, made by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group. Like the CH-4, the GJ-1 bears a striking resemblance to the Reaper. The report stated that the GJ-1 has been deployed with a PLA air force UAV unit in the Gobi desert since 2012. The report showed the remotely-piloted controls and command system used by the PLA to operate the drones.

Details of pervasive Chinese military cyber theft were revealed in classified documents made public by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

An undated briefing slide from around 2010 titled “Chinese Exfiltrate Sensitive Military Technology” reveals that Chinese hackers had conducted more than 30,000 cyber attacks, including more than 500 described as “significant intrusions in DoD systems.”

The attacks penetrated at least 1,600 network computers and compromised at least 600,000 user accounts. The damage was assessed as costing more than $100 million to gauge the damage and rebuild the networks.

The systems compromised included a range of commands and agencies, including the US Pacific Command, the US Transportation Command, the US Air Force, US Navy including missile navigation and tracking systems and nuclear submarine and anti-air missile designs.

In all the Chinese obtained an estimated 50 terabytes of data, an equivalent to five times the holdings of the US Library of Congress, the American national library considered the second largest library in the world with 23.9 million catalogued books.

Separate NSA briefing slides identified 13 separate Chinese cyber intelligence-gathering operations that NSA traced to the 3rd Department of PLA General Staff Department, the electronic military spying service known as 3PLA.

Most of the hacking operations that NSA described under the code name Byzantine Hades involved the targeting of defense information, defense contractors and weapons systems.

In its cyber spying, the Chinese were able to exploit Facebook to penetrate target computers. After fooling unwitting computer users into responding to emails linked to a Facebook post, the Chinese hackers were able to implant malicious software that gave them access to user accounts and ultimately to defense secrets.

Additionally, the military hackers used “hop points” – a computer that is taken over and used as a staging area for a targeted attack. Many of the hop points were in the United States as part of efforts to disguise the Chinese origin of the cyber attacks.

Drones are not the only aircraft compromised by Chinese cyber spies. NSA identified numerous compromises other aircraft, including the B-2 bomber, the F-22 jet and frontline F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – all targeted by 3PLA since the early 2000s.

The F-35 compromises were believed to have been carried out through a non-US subcontractor involved in development of the aircraft. The subcontractor was targeted in a Chinese cyber spying operation that obtained secrets on the advanced radar and engine designs – key radar-evading stealth features.

The F-35 losses were assessed by US intelligence agencies to have been incorporated into China’s new J-20 stealth fighter jet currently in development.

For the United States, large-scale Chinese cyber spying against American high-technology arms remains a strategic vulnerability.

US Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work announced in early December that the next defense budget will include some $15 billion for begin funding what the Pentagon is calling its “Third Offset Strategy” – defenses designed to leverage American weapons technology advantages to offset increasingly lethal enemy military capabilities. A key element of the offset is to use autonomous weapons, like UAVs.

But if the Pentagon cannot protect its weapons know-how from the 3PLA and other foreign cyber spies its advantages are likely to quickly evaporate.

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Bill Gertz
Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books.
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