Snowden says China stole F-35 JSF secret design information

Posted on 18 Jan 2015 by Tim Brown

Documents recently disclosed by former US intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden, showed that Chinese cyber spies stole 'huge volumes' of sensitive military information relating to the F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft.

The stolen information includes details of the fighter’s radar systems, engine schematics, methods for cooling exhaust gas and “aft deck heating contour maps”.

German magazine Der Spiegel has published new disclosures of signals intelligence collected by the United States National Security Agency (NSA) and its “Five Eyes” partners, including the Australian Signals Directorate.

The first Royal Australian Air Force F-35A Lightning II jet arrived at Luke Air Force Base Dec. 18, 2014. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Staci Miller.
The first Royal Australian Air Force F-35A Lightning II jet arrived at Luke Air Force Base Dec. 18, 2014. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Staci Miller.

According to a top secret NSA presentation, Chinese cyber spies have stolen huge volumes of sensitive military information, including “many terabytes of data” relating to the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) – also known as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.

Previous claims

There has been many previous allegations that the F-35 has been a target of Chinese cyber-espionage but the Snowden release provides further public confirmation.

In 2012, Aviation Week commented that Chinese hackers had been detected accessing the sensitive files three years prior.

In 2013, a previously undisclosed portion of a US Defense report listed specific weapons system designs that it said had been at least partially compromised by Chinese hackers, including the F-35 as well as the US missile defense systems.

The list of weapons, first reported by The Washington Post was included in a version of a report from the Department of Defense’s Defense Science Board (DSB) made for top Pentagon and defense industry officials. The board released a public version of the report in January, 2013.

And last year it was widely reported that the Chinese were suspected of stealing the F-35 design after pictures of its  new “fifth-generation” fighters – the Chengdu J-20 – was published showing a remarkable resemblance to the F-35. Photos of the newer J-20 were first posted online on Chinese military forums on Jan. 17, 2014.

“We can be assured that J-20 production will significantly exceed that of the 187 F-22 fighters cut off by the Obama Administration in 2010,” Richard Fisher, a specialist on Chinese weapon systems, told the Washington Times last year.

The influence of the stolen designs

Military aviation experts have speculated that the design of China’s new  fighters – the Chengdu J-20 and the Shenyang J-31 – have been extensively influenced by design information stolen from the United States, significantly eroding the air power superiority the US and its allies have long enjoyed.

In April 2014 Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that the country would buy 58 more F-35 fighters at a cost of more than AUD$12 billion. The extra aircraft will bring Australia’s total planned JSF force to 72 aircraft, with the first of them to enter service with the Royal Australian Air Force in 2020.

“The fifth-generation F-35 is the most advanced fighter in production anywhere in the world and will make a vital contribution to our national security,” Mr Abbott said.

In June 2013 US Defense Department acquisitions chief Frank Kendall told a US Senate hearing that he was “reasonably confident” classified information related to the development of the F-35 was now well protected.  It is understood the main data breach took place at the prime contractor Lockheed Martin in 2007.

The Snowden documents confirm the Australian Government has been informed of the “serious damage” caused by Chinese cyber-espionage against the JSF. The leaked US NSA briefings, which predate Australia’s acquisition of the fighter, are marked as releasable to all members of Five Eyes, which comprises the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The Snowden documents also show that Chinese cyber-espionage operations, codenamed “Byzantine Hades” by the Five Eyes partners, have enjoyed other successes with the US Defense Department registering over 500 “significant intrusions” in one year.  Damage assessment and network repair costs amounted to more than $US100 million ($121 million).

Sensitive military technologies and data stolen included information relating to the B-2 stealth bomber; the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter; nuclear submarine and naval air-defence missile designs; and tens of thousands of military personnel records.

The total data theft was estimated to be equivalent to “five Libraries of Congress (50 terabytes).

However, the documents also show that the NSA and its Five Eyes partners have penetrated China’s espionage agencies, such as infiltrating the computer of a high-ranking Chinese military official and accessing information about Chinese intelligence targets in the US government and other foreign governments.