Cyber Warriors

When will China emerge as a military threat to the U.S.? In most respects the answer is: not anytime soon—China doesn’t even contemplate a time it might challenge America directly. But one significant threat already exists: cyberwar. Attacks—not just from China but from Russia and elsewhere—on America’s electronic networks cost millions of dollars and could in the extreme cause the collapse of financial life, the halt of most manufacturing systems, and the evaporation of all the data and knowledge stored on the Internet.

Early in my time in China, I learned a useful lesson for daily life. In the summer of 2006, I saw a contingent of light-green-shirted People’s Liberation Army soldiers marching in formation down a sidewalk on Fuxing Lu in Shanghai, near the U.S. and Iranian consulates. They looked so crisp under the leafy plane trees of the city’s old colonial district that I pulled out a camera to take a picture of them—and, after pushing the button, had to spend the next 60 seconds running at full tilt away from the group’s leader, who pursued me yelling in English “Stop! No photo! Must stop!” Fortunately he gave up after scaring me off.

The practical lesson was to not point a camera toward uniformed groups of soldiers or police. The broader hint I took was to be more careful when asking about or discussing military matters than when asking about most other aspects of modern China’s development. I did keep asking people in China—carefully—about the potential military and strategic implications of their country’s growing strength. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and consequent disappearance of the U.S. military’s one superpower rival, Western defense strategists have speculated about China’s emergence as the next great military threat. (In 2005, this magazine published Robert Kaplan’s cover story “How We Would Fight China,” about such a possibility. Many of the international-affairs experts I interviewed in China were familiar with that story. I often had to explain that “would” did not mean “will” in the article’s headline.)

The cynical view of warnings about a mounting Chinese threat is that they are largely Pentagon budget-building ploys: if the U.S. military is “only” going to fight insurgents and terrorists in the future, it doesn’t really need the next generation of expensive fighter planes or attack submarines. Powerful evidence for this view—apart from familiarity with Pentagon budget debates over the years—is that many of the neoconservative thinkers who since 9/11 have concentrated on threats from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran were before that time writing worriedly about China. The most powerful counterargument is that China’s rise is so consequential and unprecedented in scale that it would be naive not to expect military ramifications. My instincts lie with the skeptical camp: as I’ve often written through the past three years, China has many more problems than most Americans can imagine, and its power is much less impressive up close. But on my return to America, I asked a variety of military, governmental, business, and academic officials about how the situation looks from their perspective. In most ways, their judgment was reassuringly soothing; unfortunately, it left me with a new problem to worry about.

Without meaning to sound flip, I think the strictly military aspects of U.S.-China relations appear to be something Americans can rest easy about for a long time to come. Hypercautious warnings to the contrary keep cropping up, especially in the annual reports on China’s strategic power produced since 2000 by the Pentagon each spring and by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission each fall. Yet when examined in detail, even these show the limits of the Chinese threat. To summarize:

• In overall spending, the United States puts between five and 10 times as much money into the military per year as China does, depending on different estimates of China’s budget. Spending does not equal effectiveness, but it suggests the difference in scale.

• In sophistication of equipment, Chinese forces are only now beginning to be brought up to speed. For instance, just one-quarter of its naval surface fleet is considered “modern” in electronics, engines, and weaponry.

• In certain categories of weaponry, the Chinese don’t even compete. For instance, the U.S. Navy has 11 nuclear-powered aircraft-carrier battle groups. The Chinese navy is only now moving toward construction of its very first carrier.

• In the unglamorous but crucial components of military effectiveness—logistics, training, readiness, evolving doctrine—the difference between Chinese and American standards is not a gap but a chasm. After a natural disaster anywhere in the world, the American military’s vast airlift and sealift capacity often brings rescue supplies. The Chinese military took days to reach survivors after the devastating Sichuan earthquake in May of 2008, because it has so few helicopters and emergency vehicles.

• For better and worse, in modern times, American forces are continually in combat somewhere in the world. This has its drawbacks, but it means that U.S. leaders, tactics, and doctrine are constantly refined by the realities of warfare. In contrast, vanishingly few members of the People’s Liberation Army have any combat experience whatsoever. The PLA’s last major engagement was during its border war with Vietnam in February and March of 1979, when somewhere between 7,000 of its soldiers (Chinese estimate) and 25,000 (foreign estimates) were killed within four weeks.

Beyond all this is a difference of military culture rarely included in American discussions of the Chinese threat—and surprising to those unfamiliar with the way China’s Communist government chose to fund its army. The post-Vietnam American military has been fanatically devoted to creating a “warrior” culture of military professionalism. The great struggle of the modern PLA has been containing the crony-capitalist culture that comes from its unashamed history of involvement in business. Especially under Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese military owned and operated factories, hotels and office buildings, shipping and trucking companies, and other businesses both legitimate and shady. In the late 1990s President Jiang Zemin led a major effort to peel the PLA’s military functions away from its business dealings, but by all accounts, corruption remains a major challenge in the Chinese military, rather than the episodic problem it is for most Western forces. One example: at a small airport in the center of the country, an airport manager told me about his regular schedule of hong bao deliveries—“red envelopes,” or discreet cash payoffs—to local air-force officers, to ensure airline passage through the sector of airspace they controlled. (Most U.S. airspace is controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration; nearly all of China’s, by the military.) A larger example is the widespread assumption that military officials control the vast Chinese traffic in pirated movie DVDs.

The Chinese military’s main and unconcealed ambition is to someday be strong enough to take Taiwan by force if it had to. But the details of the balance of power between mainland and Taiwanese forces, across the Straits of Taiwan, have been minutely scrutinized by all parties for decades, and shifts will not happen by surprise. The annual reports from the Pentagon and the Security Review Commission lay out other possible scenarios for conflict, but in my experience it is rare to hear U.S. military or diplomatic officials talk about war with China as a plausible threat. “My view is that the political leadership is principally focused on creating new jobs inside the country,” I was told by retired Admiral Mike McConnell, a former head of the National Security Agency and the director of national intelligence under George W. Bush. Another former U.S. official put it this way: “We tend to think of everything about China as being multiplied by 1.3 billion. The Chinese leadership has to think of everything as being divided by 1.3 billion”—jobs, houses, land. Russell Leigh Moses, who has lived in China for years and lectures at programs to train Chinese officials, notes that the Chinese military, like its counterparts everywhere, is “determined not to be neglected.” But “so many problems occupy the military itself—including learning how to play the political game—that there is no consensus to take on the U.S.”

Yes, circumstances could change, and someday there could be a consensus to “take on the U.S.” But the more you hear about the details, the harder it is to worry seriously about that now. So why should we worry? After conducting this round of interviews, I now lose sleep over something I’d generally ignored: the possibility of a “cyberwar” that could involve attacks from China—but, alarmingly, could also be launched by any number of other states and organizations.

The cyber threat is the idea that organizations or individuals may be spying on, tampering with, or preparing to inflict damage on America’s electronic networks. Google’s recent announcement of widespread spying “originating from China” brought attention to a problem many experts say is sure to grow. China has hundreds of millions of Internet users, mostly young. In any culture, this would mean a large hacker population; in China, where tight control and near chaos often coexist, it means an Internet with plenty of potential outlaws and with carefully directed government efforts, too. In a report for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission late last year, Northrop Grumman prepared a time line of electronic intrusions and disruptions coming from sites inside China since 1999. In most cases it was impossible to tell whether the activity was amateur or government-planned, the report said. But whatever their source, the disruptions were a problem. And in some instances, the “depth of resources” and the “extremely focused targeting of defense engineering data, US military operational information, and China-related policy information” suggested an effort that would be “difficult at best without some type of state-sponsorship.”

The authorities I spoke with pooh-poohed as urban myth the idea that an electronic assault was behind the power failures that rippled from the Midwest to the East Coast in August of 2003. By all accounts, this was a cascading series of mechanical and human errors. But after asking corporate and government officials what worried them, I learned several unsettling things I hadn’t known before.

First, nearly everyone in the business believes that we are living in, yes, a pre-9/11 era when it comes to the security and resilience of electronic information systems. Something very big—bigger than the Google-China case—is likely to go wrong, they said, and once it does, everyone will ask how we could have been so complacent for so long. Electronic-commerce systems are already in a constant war against online fraud. “The real skill to running a successful restaurant has relatively little to do with producing delicious food and a lot to do with cost and revenue management,” an official of an Internet commerce company told me, asking not to be named. “Similarly, the real business behind PayPal, Google Checkout, and other such Internet payment systems is fraud and risk management,” since the surge of attempted electronic theft is comparable to the surge of spam through e-mail networks.

At a dinner in Washington late last year, I listened to two dozen cyber-security experts compare tales of near-miss disasters. The consensus was that only a large-scale public breakdown would attract political attention to the problem, and that such a breakdown would occur. “Cyber crime is not conducted by some 15-year-old kids experimenting with viruses,” Eugene Spafford, a computer scientist at Purdue, who is one of the world’s leading cyber-security figures (and was at the dinner), told me later via e-mail.

It is well-funded and pursued by mature individuals and groups of professionals with deep financial and technical resources, often with local government (or other countries’) toleration if not support. It is already responsible for billions of dollars a year in losses, and it is growing and becoming more capable. We have largely ignored it, and building our military capabilities is not responding to that threat.

With financial, medical, legal, intellectual, logistic, and every other sort of information increasingly living in “the cloud,” the consequences of collapse or disruption are unpleasant to contemplate. A forthcoming novel, Directive 51, by John Barnes, does indeed contemplate them, much as in the 1950s Nevil Shute imagined the world after nuclear war in On the Beach. Barnes’s view of the collapse of financial life (after all, our “assets” consist mostly of notations in banks’ computer systems), the halt of most manufacturing systems, the evaporation of the technical knowledge that now exists mainly in the cloud, and other consequences is so alarming that the book could draw attention in a way no official report can.

Next, the authorities stressed that Chinese organizations and individuals were a serious source of electronic threats—but far from the only one, or perhaps even the main one. You could take this as good news about U.S.-China relations, but it was usually meant as bad news about the problem as a whole. “The Chinese would be in the top three, maybe the top two, leading problems in cyberspace,” James Lewis, a former diplomat who worked on security and intelligence issues and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, told me. “They’re not close to being the primary problem, and there is debate about whether they’re even number two.” Number one in his analysis is Russia, through a combination of state, organized-criminal, and unorganized-individual activity. Number two is Israel—and there are more on the list. “The French are notorious for looking for economic advantage through their intelligence system,” I was told by Ed Giorgio, who has served as the chief code maker and chief code breaker for the National Security Agency. “The Israelis are notorious for looking for political advantage. We have seen Brazil emerge as a source of financial crime, to join Russia, which is guilty of all of the above.” Interestingly, no one suggested that international terrorist groups—as opposed to governments, corporations, or “normal” criminals—are making significant use of electronic networks to inflict damage on Western targets, although some groups rely on the Internet for recruitment, organization, and propagandizing.

This led to another, more surprising theme: that the main damage done to date through cyberwar has involved not theft of military secrets nor acts of electronic sabotage but rather business-versus-business spying. Some military secrets have indeed leaked out, the most consequential probably being those that would help the Chinese navy develop a modern submarine fleet. And many people said that if the United States someday ended up at war against China—or Russia, or some other country—then each side would certainly use electronic tools to attack the other’s military and perhaps its civilian infrastructure. But short of outright war, the main losses have come through economic espionage. “You could think of it as taking a shortcut on the ‘D’ of R&D,” research and development, one former government official said. “When you create a new product, a competitor can cherry-pick the good parts and introduce a competitive product much more rapidly than he could otherwise.” Another technology expert, who serves on government advisory boards, told me, when referring to the steady loss of technological advantage, “We should not forget that it was China where ‘death by a thousand cuts’ originated.” I heard of instances of Western corporate officials who arrived for negotiations in China and realized too late that their briefing books and internal numbers were already known by the other side. (In the same vein: I asked security officials whether the laptops and BlackBerry I had used while living in China would have been bugged in some way while I was there. The answers were variations on “Of course,” with the “you idiot” left unsaid.)

The final theme was that even though these cyber concerns are not confined to China, the Chinese aspects do deserve consideration on their own, because China’s scale, speed of growth, and complex relationship with the United States make it a unique case. Hackers in Russia or Israel might be more skillful one by one, but with its huge population China simply has more of them. The French might be more aggressive in searching for corporate secrets, but their military need not simultaneously consider how to stop the Seventh Fleet. According to Mike McConnell, everything about China’s military planning changed after its leaders saw the results of U.S. precision weapons in the first Gulf War. “They were shocked,” he told me. “They had no idea warfare had progressed to that point, and they went on a crash course to take away our advantage.” This meant both building their own information systems—thus China’s aspiration to create a Beidou (the Chinese name for the Big Dipper) system of satellites comparable to America’s GPS—and being prepared in time of war to “attack what they see as our soft underbelly, our military’s dependence on networking,” as McConnell put it, noting the vast emerging PLA literature on defending and attacking data networks.

Ed Giorgio, formerly of the NSA, has prepared charts showing the points of “asymmetric advantage” China might have over the long run in such competition. Point nine on his 12-point chart: “They know us much better than we know them (virtually every one of their combatants reads English and virtually none of ours read Mandarin. This, in itself, will surely precipitate a massive intelligence failure).” But James Lewis, of CSIS, pointed out an “asymmetric handicap”: “For all the effort the Chinese put into cyber competition, external efforts”—against a potential foe like the United States—“are second priority. The primary priority is domestic control and regime survival. The external part is a side benefit.” For many other reasons, the China-cyber question will, like the China-finance and China-environment and China-human-rights questions, demand special attention and work.

The implications of electronic insecurity will be with us in the long run, among the other enduring headaches of the modern age. The “solution” to them is like the solution to coping with China’s rise: something that will unfold over the years and require constant attention, adjustments, and innovations. “Cyber security is a process, not a patch,” Eugene Spafford said. “We must continue to invest in it—and for the long term as well as the ‘quick fix,’ because otherwise we will always be applying fixes too late.”

No doubt because I’ve been so preoccupied for so long with the implications of China’s growth, I thought I heard a familiar note in the recommendations that many of the cyber-security experts offered. The similarity lies in their emphasis on openness, transparency, and international contact as the basis of a successful policy.

In overall U.S. dealings with China, it matters tremendously that so many Chinese organizations are led or influenced by people who have spent time in America or with Americans. Today’s financial, academic, and business elite in China is deeply familiar with the United States, many of its members having studied or worked here. They may disagree on points of policy—for instance, about trade legislation—but they operate within a similar set of concepts and facts. This is less true of China’s political leaders, and much less true of its military—with a consequently much greater risk of serious misunderstanding and error. The tensest moment in modern China’s security relationship with the outside world came in January of 2007, when its missile command shot one of its own weather satellites out of the sky, presumably to show the world that it had developed anti-satellite weaponry. The detonation filled satellite orbits with dangerous debris; worse, it seemed to signal an unprovoked new step in militarizing space. By all accounts, President Hu Jintao okayed this before it occurred; but no one in China’s foreign ministry appeared to have advance word, and for days diplomats sat silent in the face of worldwide protests. The PLA had not foreseen the international uproar it would provoke—or just didn’t care.

Precisely in hopes of building familiarity like that in the business world, the U.S. Navy has since the 1980s taken the lead in military-to-military exchanges with the PLA. “I think both sides are trying to figure out what kind of a military-to-military relationship is feasible and proper,” David Finkelstein, of the Center for Naval Analyses, in suburban Washington, D.C., told me. “We have two militaries that, in some circumstances, see each other as possible adversaries. At the same time, at the level of grand strategy, the two nations are trying to accommodate each other. There is a major chasm, but both sides are working hard to bridge it.” Such exposure obviously doesn’t eliminate the real differences of national interest between the two countries, but I believe it makes outright conflict less likely.

A similar high-road logic seems to lie behind recommendations for cyber security in general, and for dealing with the Chinese cyber threat in particular. The NSA, which McConnell directed and where Giorgio worked, is renowned for its secrecy. But both men, along with others, now argue that to defend information networks, the U.S. should talk openly about risks and insecurities—and engage the Chinese government and military in an effort to contain the problem.

As a matter of domestic U.S. politics, McConnell argues that we now suffer from a conspiracy of secrecy about the scale of cyber risks. No credit-card company wants to admit how often or how easily it is cheated. No bank or investment house wants to admit how close it has come to being electronically robbed. As a result, the changes in law, regulation, concept, or habit that could make online life safer don’t get discussed. Sooner or later, the cyber equivalent of 9/11 will occur—and, if the real 9/11 is a model, we will understandably, but destructively, overreact.

While trying to build bridges to the military, McConnell and others recommend that the U.S. work with China on international efforts to secure data networks, comparable to the Chinese role in dealing with the world financial crisis. “You could have the model of the International Civil Aviation Organization,” James Lewis said, “a body that can reduce risks for everyone by imposing common standards. It’s moving from the Wild West to the rule of law.” Why would the Chinese government want to join such an effort? McConnell’s answer was that an ever-richer China will soon have as clear a stake in secure data networks as it did in safe air travel.

We’re naturally skeptical of abstractions like “cooperation” or “greater openness” as the solutions to tough-guy, real-world problems. But in making the best of a world that will inevitably be changed by increasing Chinese power and increasing electronic threats from many directions, those principles may offer the right, realistic place to start.