WASHINGTON and TAIPEI — China continues to invest in the development of offensive cyberwarfare capabilities that could disrupt global computer networks, according to a new U.S. Defense Department report.
“China is investing in not only capabilities to better defend their networks, but also, they’re looking at ways to use cyber for offensive operations,” said David Helvey, acting deputy assistant defense secretary for East Asia, during a May 18 briefing at the Pentagon.
While Helvey could not say whether China is accelerating development of these offensive cyberwarfare capabilities, Beijing’s actions in this area over the past year have been sustained.
“Their continued efforts in this area reflect the importance that they’re placing on developing capabilities for cyberwarfare,” he said.
The report notes that in 2011, global computer networks “continued to be targets of intrusions and data theft, many of which originated within China. Although some of the targeted systems were U.S. government-owned, others were commercial networks owned by private companies whose stolen data represents valuable intellectual property.”
The annual Pentagon report — which is primarily conducted by the Pentagon’s policy office and the Defense Intelligence Agency — has been mandated by Congress since 2000.
“We intend the report to be factual,” Helvey said. “We try to maintain a very analytic, objective tone and let the facts speak for themselves.”
Beijing continued “sustained investment” in nuclear forces, short and medium-range conventional ballistic missiles, advanced aircraft, integrated air defenses, cruise missiles, submarines, ships and cyberwarfare capabilities, Helvey said.
“China’s military modernization is also, to an increasing extent, focusing on investments that would enable China’s armed forces to conduct a wide range of missions, including those that are far from China,” he said.
That said, “preparing for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait appears to be the principal focus and driver for much of China’s military investment,” he said.
The Pentagon does not expect the Chinese J-20 — an advanced fighter jet with capabilities that analysts say are similar to advanced U.S. aircraft — to achieve an “effective operational capability no sooner than 2018,” Helvey said.
China began sea trials of its first aircraft carrier last year. While the ship could be operationally ready by the end of the year, it will likely take “several additional years” before it is able to deploy with aircraft.
Despite Beijing’s military investments, military-to-military relations has improved in recent years, and top defense officials from the U.S. and China have made official visits to each country. Earlier this month, Gen. Liang Guanglie, the Chinese defense minister, met with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon and visited a number of military bases in the United States.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, is scheduled to visit China this summer and Panetta has been invited to China in the second half of this year.
This year’s 52-page report was “strangely short” compared to the 94-page report in 2011, said Gary Li, a defense analyst with London-based Executive Analysis. This year’s report was “very short and condensed,” he said.
Li noted that all analysis of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was shortened to general trends rather than specifics. There was a “focus on China’s overall national strategy rather than the PLA as an entity.”
DoD appears to have abandoned the “bean counting approach” to PLA unit information, most likely because “they were rubbish at it,” Li said.
The lack of facts and figures in this year’s report makes it impossible to say how accurate the report is this time, Li said. This could be “due to a more ‘softly softly’ approach to China” following the U.S. announcement of a new strategic realignment toward Asia, or “due to the rapidly changing character of the PLA over the past year,” which could be the Pentagon’s way of taking a “wait and see approach,” he said.
Despite the format changes, Helvey said the report still addresses “the same range of questions and issues that’s requested by the Congress in the legislation.”
“We’ve streamlined and consolidated the report in keeping with DoD-wide guidance for how we’re handling reports to Congress,” he said.
On the positive side, the Pentagon released this report roughly on schedule for the first time in years, said Henry Boyd, Research Associate for Defence and Military Analysis at London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. But on the down side, “there seems to be little in the way of new substantive analysis, and the same old contradictions continue to crop up.”
Boyd also noted the shorter version of the report compared to 2011, which might explain why they were able to release it earlier than normal.
“The chapter on ‘Force Modernization Goals and Trends’ has gone from 15 to 5 pages and the one on ‘Resources for Force Modernization’ is effectively gone,” and Boyd asked, is this “because the size of China’s Defense Budget isn’t an issue any more?”
To make matters worse, there appears to be a disconnect between the text and the data. The PLA is believed to be reorganizing both its land and air structures to a certain extent, but no mention is made of air force restructuring in the report, “whilst there is a token nod in the direction of ground force changes,” Boyd said.
The report acknowledges that in “mid-2011 the PLA began to transform its ground forces into a modular combined arms brigade-focused structure,” but the army data in the report is effectively the same set DoD put out last year.
The same could be said for missile estimates where despite “acquiring and fielding greater numbers of conventional medium-range ballistic missiles” and “continuing to produce large numbers of ground-launched cruise missiles” as well as adding “additional missile brigades,” DoD estimates for ballistic-missile numbers “are exactly the same as last year, and therefore really, really similar to the ones published the year before that,” Boyd said.
Boyd said the report has deleted any mention or the names of senior Communist Party/PLA personnel. And although President Hu Jintao gets one mention with regard to his January 2011 meeting with Obama, there is no discussion of leadership transition and no organization chart of the PRC military structure.
“In general, I would describe myself as disappointed but not surprised by the content of this report,” Boyd said. “This year is obviously going to be a highly politicized one on both sides of the Pacific, and U.S.-China relations have not run smooth as of late.”
“It is possible that the reduced transparency and analysis reflects perceptions in the Pentagon of a more serious challenge posed by China than hitherto, and thus a desire not to tip the hand any further than they absolutely have to,” Boyd said. “However, you could make an equally plausible case to suggest that this report has just been given less time and attention than it previously received and has suffered accordingly.”