China’s blueprint for cyber war

The Chinese military, whose aggressive hacking activities have hit the headlines more than once in recent weeks, has allegedly drawn up a detailed blueprint to disable the United States’ aircraft carrier battle fleet via a pre-emptive cyber attack, according to a Pentagon report obtained by the Times newspaper.

The details of the extraordinary plan, which was drawn up by two hackers working for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), reveal the startling scale and ambition of the Chinese military’s cyber strategy. Forming part of an “aggressive push” by Beijing to achieve electronic supremacy over its Western economic rivals by 2050, the blueprint extends well beyond the confines of military networks, and includes provisions for disabling an enemy’s financial and communications capabilities during an international conflict, reports the Times.

The plan, in which Britain, Russia and South Korea are also identified as targets of potential electronic aggression, represents a “new arms race”, according to a Pentagon assessment. The Chinese military considers disruptive computer operations as “critical” to seizing the initiative during the early stages of war, says the report.

The revelation follows a series of incidents in which the Chinese government has been accused of sponsoring military-led cyber assaults against Western government networks, including computer systems belonging to Chancellor Merkel in Germany and Whitehall in Britain. Last week it also emerged that the Chinese military successfully penetrated Pentagon networks in June, prompting President Bush’s admission last week that “a lot” of US systems are “vulnerable” to attack.

Information obtained by the Times reveals the true prevalence and scale of hacking activity currently perpetrated against the US government, which registered 79,000 attempted intrusions in 2005, of which some 1300 were successful. These assaults included the penetration of IT networks linked to the US army’s 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, among others. Chinese hackers also disrupted the US naval war college’s networks in November 2005, forcing the college to shut down its computer systems for several weeks, the Times reports.

According to the Pentagon report, authored by Larry Wortzel of the US Army War College, PLA hackers have produced a “virtual guidebook” on electronic warfare. In order to recruit the most talented electronic warriors, the Chinese military carries out ‘hack-offs’. Often winners go on to establish independent operations, serving effectively as sub-contractors to whom the PLA outsources its hacking activities.

This tactic allows governments to issue “plausible” denials — but China is not the first to pursue it as a systematic strategy. Many security specialists now believe that the cyber assaults unleashed against Baltic state Estonia in late April and early May of this year, while having been perpetrated by a group of loosely federated political ‘hacktivists’, was in part orchastrated and directed by the Russian government.

Such events, and the revelation of China’s sophisticated strategy for cyber warfare, underline both how fundamental computer-based assaults are becoming to international conflict, and how serious a danger such assaults now represent to the future stability of both the UK public and private sectors at large.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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Cyber War