Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's trip to China this week had several purposes.
One of them, as reported by the New York Times, was a real head-scratcher. According to the Times, Hagel was there to allay China's assumed fear of increasing U.S. cyberwar forces to about 6,000 people and to give them greater insight about what we are doing and why. Hagel's efforts were brusquely rejected by Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, who was eager to say “China cannot be contained,” and more along that line.
Hagel apparently believed his openness on cyberwar would be reciprocated by the Chinese. To absolutely no one’s shock (except perhaps Hagel’s) the Chinese haven’t done so. The reason for the lack of shock is what China (and Russia, Iran and others) have been up to for more than a decade.
China has the most aggressive cyber espionage and cyberwar programs of any nation, and perhaps the most successful. For example, it reportedly stole many of the design secrets to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. China has an unknown number of cyber warriors and invests in their capabilities at a level unknown to U.S. defense officials. They are almost certainly far ahead of our efforts. As of last year, the U.S. had only begun to develop a strategy for offensive cyber operations. (The Stuxnet attack on Iran's nuclear centrifuges was probably more an Israeli effort than an American one.)
China mounts thousands of cyber espionage attacks every day against American defense, intelligence and defense industry computer networks. The Chinese strategy behind them was revealed almost 10 years ago in the 2005 Pentagon report to Congress on the military power of the People's Republic of China.
There, the Defense Department wrote that, “China’s computer network operations include computer network attack, computer network defense, and computer network exploitation. The [People’s Liberation Army] sees CNO as critical to seize the initiative and ‘electronic dominance’ early in a conflict as a force multiplier.” That report revealed that whole departments of Chinese military academies teach moulue, the art of strategic deception. The combination makes an impressive strategy.
In the nine years since that report came out, China’s emphasis on computer network espionage, attacks and the path to “electronic dominance” has only grown, as has the American effort. For Hagel to expect China to share their cyberwar and cyber espionage secrets with him is quite absurd.
As evidenced by Chang’s aggressive remarks, China has no doubts about its strategy and is pursuing it with determination. It is right for Hagel to try to ensure that accidental wars do not occur, but that sort of war is a figment of Hollywood’s imagination. What he should be more concerned about is dealing with the enormous threats posed by China’s cyberwar and cyber espionage program.
For starters, there is no bright line between a cyber attack that is espionage or malicious hacking and one that is an act of war. The difference should be that the former doesn’t kill or injure people or wreck assets that computers control. It’s one thing to steal secrets. It’s another to cause deaths or injuries to people, or to cause a financial market to lose records of billions of dollars of transactions.
During the Cold War, the U.S. had an agreement with the Soviets on the “rules of the road” for naval forces to assure against collisions and incidents that could have caused heavy casualties on both sides. One is needed now with China, as recent encounters between the two navies show.
There also should be one on cyberwar — at least with China and Russia. If we don’t, or if they don’t abide by the terms negotiated, all bets are – and should — off. Meanwhile, many of our critical national assets remain highly vulnerable to cyber attack.
This has to be dealt with as a national priority.Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration and is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research.