Revealed: Why China and America are Set to Clash in Cyberspace

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David Sanger has a very interesting article in Saturday’s New York Times, reporting that the United States has decided to retaliate against China for the hacking of the Office of Personnel Management. According to Sanger, how the United States will respond is still a matter of debate. The White House is uncertain whether the response will be symbolic or something more substantial; whether it will be public, known only to the Chinese, or secret; and whether it will happen soon or sometime in the future.

Over at Lawfare, Jack Goldsmith argues that the White House’s inability to craft a response highlights the challenges of deterring an adversary through counterstrikes, and that deterrence through resilience and defense may be a better option.

I am going to pick up on one of the policy responses mentioned in the article, what Sanger calls “one of the most innovative actions” discussed in the U.S. intelligence agencies: finding a way to breach the Great Firewall so as to demonstrate to the Chinese leadership that the thing they value most—”keeping absolute control over the country’s dialogue”—could be at risk.

First,  a quibble. I am not sure that the idea of attacking the Great Firewall is innovative. I have heard it raised at conferences and other discussions since at least 2010. It may have also happened before. The drop of the Shanghai stock market by 64.89 points on the 23rd anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre (which occurred on June 4, 1989, or 6/4/89) may have been a weird coincidence, or the type of innovative policy Sanger is describing—an effort to show the Chinese leadership that their control was vulnerable.

Even if this is an old idea that is seeing new light, it is hard to see how it would deter future Chinese attacks, if only because Beijing appears to believe that the United States is already using the Internet to undermine domestic stability and regime legitimacy. As an article in PLA Daily put it in May (translation by Rogier Creemers):

“Cybersovereignty symbolized national sovereignty. The online space is also the security space of a nation. If we do not occupy the online battlefield ourselves, others will occupy it; if we do not defend online territory ourselves, sovereignty will be lost, and it may even become a “bridgehead” for hostile forces to erode and disintegrate us.”

Sanger’s article does not get into details, but there are at least three types of attacks that could be considered: hacks that expose information embarrassing to the leadership; allow Chinese users access to blocked websites outside of China; and lessen or dismantle controls on information within China. Beijing is likely to believe that Washington is already engaging in the first two types of attacks. A hack that exposes corruption or offshore bank accounts, for example, will not be seen as any less a hostile act than the New York Times reporting on the hidden wealth of former prime minister Wen Jiabao’s family or Bloomberg’s on the assets of Xi Jinping’s family. In addition, the State Department has spent over $100 million to help develop anti-censorship technology and train online activists, and some of that funding has gone to groups trying to give Chinese users tools to jump over the Great Firewall. Given this perception, counterattacks may not look like tit-for-tat retaliation for the OPM hack but instead as part of ongoing battle in and over cyberspace. In the best-case scenario, the Chinese would simply react with more hacking of U.S. targets.

In the worst case scenario, attacks directed at the Great Firewall risk significant escalation. Despite the White House’s framing of Chinese cyberattacks as a threat to the U.S. economy and the bilateral relationship, Beijing has probably discounted the importance of the issue to the United States. China’s leadership probably calculates that Washington does not want to scuttle Beijing’s cooperation on a range of global issues over cybersecurity.

They also view the United States as the predominant power in cyberspace, willing to use claims of Chinese hacking as a precursor to and justification for more cyberattacks on others. Beijing would likely view the types of responses being debated by U.S. intelligence agencies as disproportionate to the OPM hack, and deem them new threats to national security that call for a Chinese response.

This is not to argue that the United States should not retaliate for Chinese state-sponsored cyberattacks. Rather, it suggests trying to keep the responses as proportionate as possible—economic sanctions for the cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property; counterintelligence operations for political and military espionage—and, perhaps most importantly, improving defenses and making it much harder for an attacker to breach U.S. networks.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Net Politics here

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

America Holds Massive Anti-Drone Drills

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The U.S. military is holding a two-week anti drone drill, according to numerous media reports.

From July 26 through August 7, the U.S. military is holding its annual Black Dart drill, which it calls its “ largest live-fly, live-fire joint counter-UAS technology demonstration.” The drills, which are being run by the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Organization, or JIAMDO, are being held at the Naval Base Ventura County in California.

Navy Cmdr. David Zook, chief of the Capabilities Assessment Division at JIAMDO, said that Black Dart 2015 provides “a unique and very valuable window for us to come together for two weeks here and practice in a littoral environment, a land-based environment and a deep-sea environment in many different scenarios.”

This is the 14th edition of Black Dart, which is held annually, but only the second time part of the exercise is open to media. Previously, the U.S. military tried to keep the exercises largely secret in order to deny adversaries the knowledge of how the U.S. military planned to counter drones.

Air Force Major General Scott Gregg told the New York Post that the decision to open up the drills was “just to let everybody know that the Department of Defense is aware of this problem [with drones], we’re concerned about it and that we’re working on it.”

In the wake of a number of incidents involving small drones, including a drunk hobbyist crashing a quadcopter on the White House’s South Lawn earlier this year, this year’s Black Dart will focus on what the military calls Group 1 drones. Group 1 drones weigh under 20 pounds and fly below 1,200 feet.

“Even though we’ve been looking at [the small drone threat], it’s taken on a new sense of urgency,” Gregg told NYP.

Similarly, Zook at JIAMDO said "Small manned and unmanned aircraft have always been hard to find…. It's hard to tell the difference in the radar cross section from that and other small airborne vehicles or even birds.”

Black Dart will feature representatives from all four branches of the U.S. military, as well as partner nations serving as observers and members of the industry. In fact, industry members will provide many of the anti-drone systems that Black Dart will test, while JIAMDO will provide the drones these systems will be tested against.

All in all, some 55 different counter-drone systems will be tested at Black Dart last week and this week.

The greater attention Black Dart is receiving in recent years is emblematic of the growing problem that the U.S. military faces from the proliferation of drones. While the United States has had a near-monopoly on drones over the last decade-plus, this is no longer the case.

More than 70 nations now operate unmanned vehicles in some capacity, and some non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah also operate drones.

The United States has adopted numerous systems to counter the threat posed by these drones. For example, it has equipped the USS Ponce in the Middle East with laser guns to deal with swarms of Iranian drones.

Another enticing new weapon is the one created by SRC, a non-profit formerly affiliated with Syracuse University. SRC wrote new software to tie together the Humvee-mounted AN/TPQ-50 counter-fire radar and the CREW Duke counter-IED system, along with a small armed-drone called Switchblade.

Together, the SRC system can jam, take control of or destroy kinetically any small drone. Gregg says that it stands “one of our greatest success stories from Black Dart.”

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

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China's Super Weapons: Beware the J-20 and J-31 Stealth Fighters

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Throughout its history, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has lagged behind the aerial programs of other world powers such as the United States. Now, the PRC has set its sights on producing indigenously designed “fifth generation” fighter jets comparable to the US F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. Many U.S. officials and pilots suspect that the Chinese have been using hacked U.S. technology to aid their indigenous development programs. The PRC is also leveraging additive manufacturing technology (better known as 3D-printing) in order to increase speed and efficiency in manufacturing aircrafts and compete with the U.S. The J-20 Black Eagle could be fully operational by 2018, and a second model, the J-31 Gyrfalcon, by 2020. If true, China’s new generation of fighters could have a substantial impact on its ability to either defend what it considers to be sovereign airspace, or to mount an aerial offensive in a wartime scenario, particularly against Taiwan (ROC).  

Recent Advances in the PLAAF

Between 1990 and 1992 the PRC purchased 24 Su-27 Flankers from Russia and slightly modified the design to become the J-11 Flanker B+.  In response, the U.S. sold 150 F-16 Fighting Falcons to Taiwan. The acquisition of fourth generation Su-27s allowed China’s Air Force to enter modernity, and they have become progressively more capable ever since. In 2010, half of the PLAAF fleet still consisted of jets modeled after 1950s and 1960s Soviet MiG-19 Farmers and MiG-21 Fishbeds, but China’s ability to project air power has increased significantly within the past 5 years. Recently, the PRC and Russia have nearly completed a deal to transfer 24 Russian Su-35 Super Flankers, a potent “generation 4++” fighter, to the Chinese, in addition to China’s scheduled integration of fifth generation technology.

Currently the PLAAF relies on the J-11 as its primary fighter. However, this model is largely unproven. This aircraft is perhaps most recognized as the fighter variant involved in an August 2014 incident in which a single J-11 intercepted a USN P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft 135 miles east of Hainan Island. Twice the J-11 came within 50 yards of the U.S. aircraft. The aggressive maneuvering by the Chinese pilot was an example of the PLAAF making it clear that U.S. surveillance is not appreciated within the airspace over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Fifth Generation Capabilities

Since 2008 the PRC has worked to design and manufacture fifth generation concepts, both for its own use and to sell on a global scale. Two companies in China have worked on designs: the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (J-20) and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (J-31). Both are subsidiaries of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC). It is likely that the J-20 and J-31 will complement one another when integrated into the PLAAF’s arsenal. The J-20 is closer to becoming operational, with an inaugural test flight in 2011; it is expected to reach initial operating capability (IOC) by 2018. Because both jets are still in prototype stage, their exact capabilities are not certain. However, it is speculated that the J-20 will provide a long-range strike system capable of reaching anywhere in the Western Pacific region, and incorporate a stealth design; the first of its kind in the PRC. In a conflict, the J-20 would likely be deployed in air-to-air combat with the mission of limiting the enemy’s radar coverage and strike range. The J-31 could be a potent complement to the J-20, similar to the planned U.S. partnership of the F-22 and F-35.  While the J-20 is expected to possess superior dogfighting abilities, the J-31 will be “the perfect fighter for the PLA to carry out anti-access area-denial (A2AD) strategies in the Western Pacific”. The J-20 is slightly faster, with a maximum speed of Mach 2.5 compared to Mach 2 for the J-31. Both sport a combat radius of approximately 2000km (1242 miles).

U.S. officials believe that the J-31 will immediately match or exceed the capabilities of U.S. fourth generation fighters such as the F-15 Strike Eagle and F/A-18 Super Hornet, and could possibly even compete with the F-22 or F-35. But this would largely depend on several factors including the quality of Chinese pilots, the quantity of fighters produced, and the reliability of radar and other equipment on board. In late 2014, AVIC President Lin Zhouming made an even bolder prediction, saying, “When [the J-31] takes to the sky, it could definitely take down the F-35. It's a certainty.” Even if neither of the Chinese fighter jets is entirely up to par with U.S. fifth-gens, they still could drastically change the dynamic of both a conflict with the U.S. or a scenario such as an invasion of Taiwan.


If the PRC decided to launch an attack across the Taiwan Strait, a contingency that it practices every year, air superiority would be essential for three reasons: the relatively small amount of airspace available over Taiwan; the ROC Air Force’s (ROCAF) ability to saturate its airspace with its own fighters, and the ROC's extensive surface-to-air missile defense system. If the PLAAF is unable to prevent or significantly limit attacks against its naval vessels when crossing the Strait, the mission would almost certainly fail. Ultimately, the PRC’s accumulation of cutting-edge fighter technology could provide the critical air advantage over the ROCAF to carry out a successful invasion, and should be cause for concern at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war for the U.S. 

This piece first appeared on Project 2049’s blog AsiaEye here. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

TNI Is HIRING: Defense and National Security Writer and Editor

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The National Interest, a print and online magazine focusing on international affairs, foreign policy, national security, domestic politics and more is searching for an individual to join our online editorial team. This position is based in Washington, D.C.

This specific position entails writing and editing articles concentrating on defense, military hardware and national security issues as well as other duties as needed.

This demanding but rewarding position requires the following skills:

- “Blogging” and writing on defense, military hardware and national security issues on a daily basis.

- Experience in journalism (1 year or more) or online writing/blogging, a background in defense and national security writing and familiarity with tools used in web production (basic HTML/Drupal, Photoshop, SEO, Google Analytics) will particularly stand out on an application.

- Knowledge of American, Chinese, Russian, European Union and various other nation and non-nation states’ military hardware, security strategies, technological trends etc.

- Successful candidates will also have the ability to write clearly, intelligently, and thoughtfully keeping in mind short deadlines and fast turnaround times.

- Other duties include copy-editing and fact checking online pieces (knowledge of Chicago-Style is a plus), communicating with authors, researching potential topics for publication, art selection and formatting content for TNI’s online edition.

- A bachelor’s degree in one of the following disciplines: political science, history, and/or international affairs.  A master’s degree in one of the above is highly desirable. 

All applications must submit the following: Cover letter, Resume/CV, and a writing sample of 500 words or more to:

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr.  

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China Builds World's Largest Aircraft Carrier Dock in South China Sea

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China has built the world’s largest aircraft carrier dock in its naval base in the South China Sea.

This week the Canadian-based Asian security magazine, Kanwa Asian Defence, reported that China had completed work on a 700 meter-long dock at its sprawling Sanya naval complex in Hainan province in the South China Sea. According to the report, the dock is able to service ships on both sides, allowing it to accommodate two aircraft carriers or other large ships at the same time.

That would make the new dock the longest in the world. Indeed, the report noted that America’s aircraft carrier docks in Norfolk, Virginia, as well as its carrier base in Japan, were between 400 and 430 meters long.

A Chinese defense official confirmed the reports during a press briefing on Friday. In response to a question about the Western report, Yang Yujun, a spokesperson for China’s Defense Ministry, said that “The onshore support facilities includes docking ports for the aircraft carriers, airports, training facilities and so on.”

Other reports in China’s state-run media said that the aircraft carrier dock had been completed in November 2014. They went on to say that “the base incorporates a pier which can dock large ships on both sides, suggesting that two carriers can dock at the PLA Navy's carrier bases at the same time.”

Chinese officials had previously said that construction on the aircraft carrier base began in 2012, and China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, docked at the Hainian base briefly in September 2013. The Liaoning’s home port is at the Dalian naval base in northern Liaoning province.

According to the Kanwa report, the new dock is connected to the PLA Navy’s Yulin nuclear submarine base, making the Sanya complex the largest naval base in all of Asia. It is also strategically located in the South China Sea.

Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that China is still likely to further expand the Sanya base.

"There might need to be more construction work at the Sanya carrier base to develop it further [to cater to other vessels]. So far it is just able to accommodate two-way rapid replenishment for two aircraft carriers," Li said, SCMP reported.

He added: “China will finish two home-built aircraft carriers, and more large vessels will join those two to form fighting flotillas. That means that more docks and ports need to be ready not only in the south but also in the north."

The fact that the dock can accommodate two aircraft carriers is further confirmation that China is building additional aircraft carriers. The location of the Sanya base, in the South China Sea, demonstrates that China intends to use the aircraft carriers to project power further from its shores.

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. China also has overlapping claims with Indonesia but Jakarta does not officially consider itself to be a claimant to the South China Sea dispute.

Incidentally, in his press conference on Friday, Yang Yujun, the Defense Ministry spokesperson, also accused the United States of trying to militarize the South China Sea.

"China is extremely concerned at the United States' pushing of the militarization of the South China Sea region," Yang said, adding: "What they are doing can't help but make people wonder whether they want nothing better than chaos."

Yang made the comments in reference to recent U.S. military drills in the South China Sea. China’s military also conducted a massive military drill in the South China Sea this week, but Yang insisted these were routine and not directed at any third party.

Zachary Keck is the managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @Zachary Keck.

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