Engine Tech, Cyber-Espionage Key to China’s Progress
One important factor could act as a brake on China’s rapid progress while another has almost certainly assisted it, to an unknown extent. The limiting factor is engine technology: so far, all China’s modern, operational fighters fly with Russian-supplied engines. The positive factor is China’s intense and apparently effective campaign of cyber-espionage against Western industries and governments.
The degree to which China’s progress has been aided by cyber-espionage is not easy to determine, but that is not surprising. What is known euphemistically as the Advanced Persistent Threat (APT)—a pattern of sophisticated and continuously evolving penetration attempts aimed at computer networks, predominantly originating in China—was not identified in the West until 2006, and Chinese aircraft and weapons that have been disclosed in any detail mostly date from before that.
Details of newer products, such as the low-observable systems—materials, edge treatments, door and aperture design and electronic apertures—on the J-20 and J-31, and the J-10B’s active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, will be a more telling indicator of the value of the APT.
What is certain, however, is that cyber-espionage is potentially the most valuable addition to spycraft since the advent of signals intelligence. The intake can include large volumes of detailed technical information that can be disseminated with relative freedom to end-users—people designing and engineering systems. The relative freedom comes from the fact that no agents are at risk and the techniques and software used for network penetration are not designed for a long life: The presumption is that they will be detected, countered and replaced with something new.