The cyber conflict between China and the United States entered a more dangerous phase on Monday, as a new report said that more than two dozen U.S. military projects have been compromised by Chinese hackers.
Meanwhile, in addition to gaining access to classified weapons systems, Chinese hackers managed to steal the blueprints for a brand new Australian spy headquarters intended to work closely with the United States and UK.
According the Washington Post, a report prepared by the Defense Science Board has briefed the Pentagon on the fact that designs ranging from missile defense systems to aircraft and ship have been compromised. The report didn't accuse China of stealing everything, but it's suspected that the country is behind the majority of them.
Included in the stolen designs were that of the advanced Patriot missile system which is integral to the missile defense project being deployed throughout Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. China also gained access to the plans for the F-35 Joint Strike fighter jet, the Navy's new Littoral Combat Ship, and more.
"That's staggering," Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute think tank, said to the Post when he heard exactly what information the Chinese stole. "These are all very critical weapons systems, critical to our national security. When I hear this in totality, it's breathtaking."
Even as China's economy has become the second largest in the world, defense analysts had expected the U.S. to maintain a military advantage over the country for years to come. However, these security breaches demonstrate that China's cyber-espionage prowess could lessen the gap significantly in just a few years.
Not only does its ability to steal Pentagon designs give China intimate knowledge of classified U.S. projects, it also means the country can develop its own versions of these systems without spending the time and money (in terms of billions of dollars) on research and development.
"You've seen significant improvements in Chinese military capabilities through their willingness to spend, their acquisitions of advanced Russian weapons, and from their cyber-espionage campaign," said James A. Lewis, a cyber-policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Ten years ago, I used to call the PLA [People's Liberation Army] the world's largest open-air military museum. I can't say that now."
Meanwhile, another report by the Associated Press claims that China has acquired the floorplans to Australia's new spy headquarters is alarming in another way. The Australia Security Intelligence Organisation intended to use the building as part of a global intelligence gathering network cooperating with countries like the United States, but the cyber theft has already made the building susceptible to attacks.
"You can start constructing your own wiring diagrams, where the linkages are through telephone connections, through wi-fi connections, which rooms are likely to be the ones that are used for sensitive conversations, how to surreptitiously put devices into the walls of those rooms," security analyst Des Ball said to ABC News (via the AP).
China adamantly denies that it has any part in any cyberattack, but the most recent National Intelligence Estimate found that the U.S. has been under virtual attack by the country for the last five years.