A cyber espionage operation by China seven years ago produced sensitive technology and aircraft secrets that were incorporated into the latest version of China’s new J-20 stealth fighter jet, according to U.S. officials and private defense analysts.
The Chinese cyber spying against the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II took place in 2007 under what U.S. intelligence agencies codenamed Operation Byzantine Hades, a large-scale, multi-year cyber program that targeted governments and industry.
Defense officials said the stolen data was obtained by a Chinese military unit called a Technical Reconnaissance Bureau in the Chengdu province. The data was then passed to the state-run Aviation Industry Corp. of China (AVIC).
An AVIC subsidiary, the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, used the stolen data in building the J-20, said defense and intelligence officials familiar with reports of the illicit tech transfer.
Pentagon technology security officials in 2011 opposed a joint venture between General Electric and AVIC over concerns that U.S. fighter jet technology would be diverted to AVIC’s military aircraft programs. The Obama administration ignored the concerns and instead has since promoted the systematic loosening of technology controls on transfers to China.
The Office of Director of National Intelligence is known to have details of AVIC’s past involvement in illicit arms transfers and its role in obtaining sensitive F-35 technology through cyber espionage, the officials said.
The F-35 data theft was confirmed after recent photographs were published on Chinese websites showing a newer version of the J-20. The new version of the radar-evading aircraft had incorporated several design upgrades since the first demonstrator aircraft was revealed in 2011.
According to the officials, the J-20 has progressed from prototype to demonstrator. One of its most significant weapons enhancements is a new electro-optical targeting system under its nose.
Additionally, protruding engine nozzles seen in the earlier version have been hidden, an attempt to further reduce the jet’s radar signature. The newest J-20 also appeared with a different radar-absorbing coating.
Photos of the newer J-20 were first posted online on Chinese military forums on Jan. 17.
The Pentagon’s Defense Science Board revealed earlier this year that system design information on the F-35 was obtained from cyber attacks.
The new Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile systems and Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile defenses, along with many other systems, were compromised through cyber espionage, the board said in a report.
Most details of the Chinese cyber espionage campaign to obtain F-35 technology remain secret.
However, the Chinese probably obtained the F-35 secrets from Lockheed Martin, its subcontractors, or U.S. allies involved in the development program. Allies that took part in the F-35 program include the United Kingdom, Israel, Italy, Australia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Turkey.
A Chinese Academy of Military Sciences official, Du Wenlong, told Chinese state television on Feb. 20 that the new J-20’s shortened exhaust nozzles, along with tail and vertical fin modifications, are designed to reduce radar detection.