Pentagon report warns of China’s cyber preparations for war following hacking of U.S. military bases
A strategy document from the Department of Defense (DoD) has warned that China considers cyberspace a crucial element to “prosecuting a war against the U.S.,” and that the communist nation is now taking measures to “dominate the information domain” for future conflict.
According to the Pentagon’s unclassified 2023 DoD Cyber Strategy Summary, China could use its cyber power to hamper the ability of the U.S. armed forces to operate.
The previous version of the DoD summary released in 2018 singled out China’s goal of stealing intellectual property through hacking. But the 2023 version warned that China’s “malicious” cyber activity suggests that the country is preparing for conflict.
The report follows news of concerted Beijing-backed cyberattacks on networks that serve U.S. military bases in Guam and other locations. The strategy document revealed that China prioritizes superiority in cyberspace as crucial to “its theories of victory.”
The document also said that if conflict arises, China may launch destructive cyber attacks against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to affect military mobilization, create chaos and divert the agency’s attention and resources. It is also possible that China will try to disrupt key networks that allow Joint Force power projection in combat.
Media reports have revealed that the recent revelations of China’s disruptive hacking operations targeting American soil and networks crucial to military operations have sparked concern among officials. (Related: Air Force general warns US will be at war with China by 2025.)
Chinese government-backed hacking group targeting U.S. networks
Back in May, Microsoft reported that a suspicious Chinese government-backed group called Volt Typhoon attacked critical U.S. networks, including in Guam. The group may have spied on the U.S. to gain the upper hand in case of future crises.
In July, government officials reported that they believe the Guam hacking incident was only one of many in what could be a year-long operation plan to plant malicious code in crucial and sensitive networks.
Several of the affected networks control power grids, water supply and communications systems that support U.S. military operations. However, these networks are also connected to civilian systems.
The officials added that the U.S. government’s effort to find the code and delete it has been going on for some time. Most of the interviewed officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about confidential and, in certain cases, classified assessments.
According to the officials, the investigations have shown that the Chinese effort seems more widespread, particularly in America and at American facilities abroad, than they had initially realized. However, the officials acknowledge that they still do not know the full extent of the code’s presence in networks around the world, partly because it is well hidden.
The discovery of the malware has set off a series of Situation Room meetings at the White House in recent months. Senior officials from the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the Homeland Security Department and the nation’s spy agencies have tried to determine the scope of the problem and plan the appropriate response.
Biden administration officials have also started to brief members of Congress, some state governors and utility companies about the findings. Officials have also confirmed some conclusions about the operation.
One congressional official warned that the malware is a “ticking time bomb” that Beijing could easily activate the moment there is conflict with the U.S. or an invasion of Taiwan. Once activated, the malware could hinder timely military operations and slow down its response.
China’s malicious cyber activity hints at the country’s overall goals and intent to prepare for war, according to the strategy document. It also warned that China has started reorganizing and modernizing its military to achieve that goal.
The 2023 DoD Cyber Strategy Summary also provided a rare acknowledgement of the DoD’s own offensive cyber operations “below the level of armed conflict.”
According to the document, America’s adversaries will be “made to doubt the efficacy of their military capabilities and their belief that they can conduct unattributed coercive actions against the United States.”
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