As secrets go, this one is multiples beyond scoring access to KFC's 11 secret herbs and spices and the Coke recipe rolled into one: Hackers have breached the digital firewalls protecting plans for several dozen major U.S. weapons systems. According to the U.S. Defense Science Board (DSB), whose report broke the news, the digital download includes plans for the Patriot and Aegis missile systems, the F/A-18 fighter jet and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, as well as the Blackhawk helicopter.
The words "China" and "Chinese" appear just three times in the 146 page DSB document, but the hacker study follows the Pentagon's early May report on China's military capability, which noted a pattern of Chinese hacking that "appear(s) to be attributable directly to the Chinese government and military."
Connect the dots, and it appears that the formidable force multiplier of U.S. defense technology has been compromised by a potential adversary's ability to carbon copy -- for a fraction of the cost -- the advanced weapons platforms the U.S. has perfected at a cost of trillions in R&D.
The only thing worse than China apparently stealing the blueprints to the U.S.'s most advanced weapons platforms is that Chinese defense technologists would now be able to posit precisely which sub-systems are most critical to battlefield functionality. If there is a material or alloy that caused U.S. defense designers to stay up nights looking for the optimum performance, China will know it. If there's a function prone to faulting, with consequences critical to overall system performance, China will know that, too.
Clearly, in terms of China's own weapons programs, they'll be able to skip the costly learning curve and go straight to the winning candidate favored in the final U.S. system. But more than that, in terms of counter-measures, they'll know which node in the overall system could reduce a U.S. weapons platform to an idling shell, or worse still, render it impotent in the heat of battle.
Of course, the ability to act on that intelligence wouldn't exist, absent an ability to physically alter a U.S. weapons platform. That's a level of espionage seen only in political thrillers.
But China doesn't need to drop agents into our defense assembly plants to degrade U.S. weapons. They can simply build bad parts and funnel faulty materials right into our weapons systems.
That's right. Because the fact is, Chinese manufacturers sell into the U.S. defense systems supply chain. And all too often the parts provided are second-rate or worse.
In the case of a single missile defense interceptor, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency found 800 counterfeit parts.
As for where the counterfeits come from, a 2012 Senate report based on a one-year investigation found that 70 percent of the bogus parts originate in China. In one instance, Senate investigators traced 84,000 counterfeit parts to a single Chinese supplier, which in a display of cross-service versatility fed bootleg parts into the Air Force's Global Hawk drone, the Army's Stryker Mobile Gun and the Navy's Integrated Submarine Imaging System.
Marry that risk with the new knowledge that now, courtesy of the alleged Chinese hack attack, the People's Liberation Army has U.S. defense blueprints, and it's possible that a potential adversary knows precisely where to place a bad bolt or a bogus alloy so that it does the most damage -- and then can proceed to sell those parts into the U.S. defense materials supply chain.
Our fully-distributed weapons production system -- with Tier 3 suppliers standing a full three degrees of separation from the "primes" or "systems integrators" -- may be tailor-made for assembling weapons platforms with the efficiency that comes from comparative advantage, but it also offers literally thousands of penetration points for an adversary to introduce bogus parts. Our "systems integrators," their Pentagon Program Managers -- and ultimately our war-fighters -- would be the last to know.
The opportunities are as endless as the list of piece-parts that comprise a modern weapons platform. Perhaps a circuit board is rehabbed and sold as new, or a metal oxide required to be 4-9's pure is a few 9's short of that. So much of our just-in-time economy -- including that which feeds the U.S. defense industry -- comes from all corners of the planet with no clear point of origin that our systems are all too porous to this sort of sabotage.
The same goes for the metals and minerals that provide some of the most sophisticated performance capabilities of our weapons systems: In the most recent National Defense Stockpile report, of the 72 metals surveyed, one country -- China -- currently produces 64. And when you examine the Pentagon's unclassified list of 19 identified metals and minerals designated as being in shortfall, China presently mines all 19.
Almost a century ago, Lenin famously told his Bolsheviks that the capitalist West "would sell us the rope we'll hang them with." As we move deeper into the 21st Century, are we sure we're not slipping the noose of our weapons supply chain around our own necks?