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Top Official Admits F-35 Stealth Fighter Secrets Stolen

Published: June 28, 2013
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Yesterday, at a subcommittee hearing attended by just half a dozen Senators, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer made a blunt admission: The military’s most expensive program, the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, has been hacked and the stolen data used by America’s adversaries. Under Secretary Frank Kendall didn’t say by whom, but the answer is almost certainly China, a cyber superpower whose People’s Liberation Army Air Force has recently rolled out some suspiciously sophisticated stealth fighter prototypes of its own. The Russians also have skilled hackers and “5th Generation” stealth jet programs, but they’re not suspected of such direct copying, at least not yet.

“I’m confident the classified material is well protected, but I’m not at all confident that our unclassified information is as well-protected,” said Kendall, the Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. “It’s a major problem for us…. What it does is reduce the costs and lead time of our adversaries to doing their own designs, so it gives away a substantial advantage.”

The bad news isn’t new news: That someone had hacked F-35 subcontractor BAE Systems was first reported six years ago, and just this February Washington Post reporter Ellen Nakashima obtained leaked information naming the Chinese as having compromised not just the F-35 but two dozen other weapons program. Administration officials have been publicly pressuring China to rein in its hacking. But it’s still remarkable that such a senior official would so bluntly admit that US interests have been so directly harmed.

So what does this mean for a future conflict? The nightmare — raised by a recent Defense Science Board report – is what you might call the Battlestar Galactica scenario: Our fighters close in on the enemy, the bad guys push a button, and all our systems shut down, crippled by cyber-attacks via “back doors” previous hacks created in the security software. In this case, thankfully, that seems unlikely. Kendall made clear that classified data has remained secure (so far, we think): It’s unclassified data in contractors’ computers that has been stolen, not the military’s secret codes.

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