China admits it has cyber warfare units

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

March 23, 2015

China is marching toward global economic superiority, and by their own admission is being aided and abetted by an army of cyber criminals. Prior to now, all we heard were allegations of organized hacking into US corporations as the Chinese sought to steal corporate secrets and gain an illegal competitive advantage. For years, the Chinese have denied the claims of cyber espionage., but now it freely admits that it has dozens of cyber warfare divisions.

In a recent edition of a Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) publication called The Science of Military Strategy, China finally broke its silence and openly talked about digital spying and network attack capabilities, and clearly stated that it has specialized units devoted to wage war on computer networks. This appears to be the first time that China has explicitly acknowledged that it has clandestine cyber warfare units aimed at military and civilian/corporate/government infiltration.

China has admitted to three types of operational military units:

  • Specialized military forces to fight the network — The unit designed to carry out defensive and offensive network attacks.
  • Groups of experts from civil society organizations — The unit has number of specialists from civilian organizations – including the Ministry of State Security (its like China’s CIA), and the Ministry of Public Security (its like FBI) – who are authorized to conduct military leadership network operations.
  • External entities — The unit sounds a lot like hacking-for-hire mercenaries and contains non-government entities (state-sponsored hackers) that can be organized and mobilized for network warfare operations.

What is also worrisome is that these entities are tasked with conducting industrial espionage against US firms in attempts to steal their secrets. According to an expert on military strategy at the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, Joe McReynolds,

It means that the Chinese have discarded their fig leaf of quasi-plausible deniability. As recently as 2013, official PLA publications have issued blanket denials such as ’The Chinese military has never supported any hacker attack or hacking activities.’ They can’t make that claim anymore.”

The question for US officials is – what now? The US government is already ceding too much digital territory to hackers from all stripes, although the Russians and now the Chinese are most prominent. President Obama has famously tried to “reset” relations with Russia, and much was made of his recent goodwill trip to China. All this external pomp and circumstance and business as usual approach while countries like China act secretively in the shadows… All this while these nations have explicitly and furtively thumbed their noses at the US. The fact is that the US seems powerless or is unwilling to act on these aggressive cyber issues.

It has been more than a year since the US filed criminal charges against five Chinese military officials for hacking and conducting cyber espionage against several American companies who were believed to be based in Shanghai with the notorious PLA Unit 61398. But the hacking is not limited to private companies, who will simply pass on the costs of the attacks and the security response to consumers in the form of higher prices.

No, the risk is greater than mere dollars and cents, or gaining competitive advantages in contract negotiations by stealing cost and pricing data and trade secrets. Unit 61398 has also targeted critical infrastructure such as pipelines, transmission lines and power generation facilities. They have also been accused of stealing information about a nuclear power plant’s design.

It is time for the self-proclaimed “most transparent government in history” to reveal just how vulnerable the US is to such attacks, how it proposes to protect the country, and end its feckless approach to avowed and now admitted enemies.

Editor’s note: We recognize that Stan’s views are very pro-US, and that this article does not address the issue of the NSA’s also very extensive cyber-warfare and commercial espionage operations.

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