WASHINGTON -- Chinese hackers who gained access to the schematics for various U.S. ballistic missile defense systems might have wanted to see if the United States was moving closer to fixing a longstanding vulnerability of the technology -- the ability to distinguish actual warheads from decoys and debris, according to a U.S. physicist.
The Washington Post reported this week that designs for a number of weapon systems with key roles in Washington’s strategy for defending against missile attacks in East Asia had been compromised by cyber hackers from China. That conclusion was made by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board in a confidential section of a public report on cyber threats released in January.
The assessment said at least some of the cyber spying appeared to be "attributable directly to the Chinese government and military,” according to the Associated Press.
The United States is basing its regional framework for East Asia ballistic missile defense primarily on three different systems -- the Standard Missile 3, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, and the Patriot Advanced Capability 3 interceptor. All three technologies were among those reported to have been hacked by China.
Putting herself in the shoes of Chinese military strategists, space physicist Laura Grego said she would be most interested in gaining access to the designs for sensor components that could provide greater insight into the technology’s capacity to distinguish separated warheads from decoys or the debris associated with the deployment of warheads from their missiles.
“The Achilles heel of missile defense is well-known,” said Grego, senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program, in a Thursday interview.
The difficulty that U.S. sensors have in distinguishing between warheads and other moving aerial objects has been known for some time and was highlighted as recently as last September in a Pentagon-funded study by the National Research Council. Independent experts have strongly cautioned against the United States assuming too much confidence in its ability to defeat a possible ballistic missile attack so long as the targeting weakness remains unaddressed
In order to exploit this vulnerability, foreign nations in a real-life attack could release countermeasures such as metal chaff and decoy aluminum balloons from ballistic missiles in mid-flight that would be aimed at confusing U.S. radars as to what is the actual threat. The United States is acquiring more interceptors but they are expensive and complicated to manufacture while decoys are simple and cheap, meaning that there will never be enough U.S. missiles to go after every single detected possible warhead.
China has said it is developing “penetrative” countermeasures to U.S. missile defenses. This is generally taken to mean it is focusing on exploiting the discrimination weakness with decoys, according to Grego.
Even if U.S. interceptors in an actual attack are able to destroy nine out of 10 enemy nuclear warheads, the remaining weapon would cause massive devastation. For this reason, independent experts say it is crucial that the threat discrimination weakness be fixed and quickly.
China is likely interested in knowing if the United States is moving any closer to solving this problem, according to Grego. “What keeps China up at night is not the reality of [present-day U.S.] missile defense but the dream.”
The Chinese Defense Ministry officially denies ordering the hacking of the missile defense systems and other U.S. weapons technology. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected to discuss the subject with a Chinese military delegation this weekend at a regional security conference in Singapore. Beijing's suspected large-scale cyber espionage activities are also likely to come up during next month's summit between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to AP.
It is not clear exactly which blueprints the hackers were able to access. Missile defense systems come with multiple components such as interceptors, launchers, radars, command-and-control units, and kinetic kill vehicles.
The Defense Department has a number of primary contractors for its key antimissile programs. The big defense firms in turn subcontract out work on various components of the systems, spreading out the number of targets that the Chinese might have hacked. The confidential section of the Defense Science Board report did not disclose whether it was U.S. government networks or private defense computers that were breached.
It is also not known whether the schematics for entire antimissile systems were accessed or if it was just the blueprints for specific components.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the department maintains “full confidence in our weapon platforms” and insisted that the reported cyber hacking had not led in any way to the diminishment of U.S. military capabilities or “technological edge.”
“A weapon system is so complicated and has so many features that can play a role in making it effective or not that the kinds of data that you would need to be able to really get any insight either positive or negative about the system would be really quite vast,” said Theodore Postol, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a prominent critic of the utility of U.S. missile defense technology.
Postol in a telephone conversation said he believes it is highly unlikely that China through its cyber espionage would have been able to extract enough detailed information to allow it to build complete antimissile systems based off the U.S. designs.
Grego said she is also having a hard time coming up with anything the Chinese could have learned by hacking the antimissile designs that would be a “game changer,” given that the targeting discrimination problem is already so widely known.
In the event that China’s cyber sleuthing was aimed at learning how it could adapt U.S. technology to improve its own domestic missile defenses, that would not mean much for the United States, the Union of Concerned Scientists expert said.
Washington could still be assured that any massive ICBM strike it might launch would overwhelm China’s indigenous missile defenses. The same holds true for any large-scale ICBM attack China might carry out on the United States.
No country has figured out how to defend against a massive intercontinental ballistic missile attack. What existing U.S. defenses could do -- to varying degrees and depending on where the technology is deployed -- is defend against a small-scale ballistic missile attack mounted by North Korea or Iran.
China, unlike the United States, is not worried about being attacked by Tehran or Pyongyang. If China is focusing on improving its antimissile capabilities against anyone, it is likely focusing on neighboring nuclear-armed India, according to Grego.
WASHINGTON -- Chinese hackers who gained access to the schematics of various U.S. ballistic missile defense systems might have wanted to see if the United States was moving closer to fixing a longstanding vulnerability of the technology -- the ability to distinguish actual warheads from decoys and debris, according to a U.S. physicist.