Center for Strategic Communication

As shopping lists go, it is an impressively long one.

The Washington Post on Tuesday revealed a Defense Science Board report detailing the extent to which Chinese cyberspies have rifled through computer networks at defense contractors and the Department of Defense. It has been long known that the People’s Liberation Army’s aim has been to steal plans and information on America’s leading-edge weapons systems – and some older ones too – but the sweep of targeted systems is stunning.

From the newest U.S. aircraft such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to stalwart naval weapons like the Mk. 54 torpedo, hackers have searched out a broad swathe of off-limits information about the American arsenal.

The extent of the hacking underscores the stakes in the ongoing fight over keeping spies and hackers out of government and defense industry networks. Stealing secrets is one threat, but an additional risk of lasting damage to military and civilian networks also is very real. The theft also aids China’s ambition in moving away from a military reliant on purchased Russian weapons systems toward a 21st Century professionalized fighting force equipped with Chinese-designed and -built armaments. China’s stealthy J-20 fighter is a highly visible step in this direction.

Flag of the People's Republic of China“Beijing’s long-term goal is to create a wholly-indigenous defense industrial sector, augmented by a strong commercial sector, to meet the needs of PLA modernization and to compete as a top-tier producer in the global arms market,” the Defense Department wrote in a recent report on the Chinese military. Espionage plays a significant role. See the Defense Department report.

Whether such regular pilfering of U.S. defense secrets can be cut off remains to be seen. So far the answer is no. In early June, President Obama will meet with China’s president Xi Jinping, with such reports adding to the public pressure on the Chinese to rein in its state-backed hackers.

President Obama needs to make this a priority issue at an upcoming meeting with President Xi, who is still new to his post. What President Obama needs to drive home is that the U.S. will not tolerate repeated incursions into its networks. It is a military matter, as well as a threat to American competitiveness. Network assurance is as much a part of the bedrock of a 21st Century economy as functional power or transportation systems. The U.S. does not need further stresses of its infrastructure right now. The civilian technology sector is familiar with this threat and should be brought in to consult on ways to break down the resistance to sharing vulnerabilities among bureaucratic rivals in the defense community.

A major challenge in bolstering network security is who pays for the additional defenses. Cyber security is also an acute issue for the defense industrial base, which already faces considerable financial headwinds because of falling defense budgets. The Chinese are not the only threat, of course, but it is the most persistent and largest scale one. Contractors, and the weapons programs they work on, are already under scrutiny over cost growth. Yet while it is expensive to prepare for such incursions, responding to a major security breach is much costlier for the country. It also makes it harder to politically defend troubled programs when lawmakers begin tallying up the list of demerits against an unwanted weapons system.

China’s appetite for U.S. military know-how won’t lessen anytime soon. But the White House in its dealings with President Xi must try and take America’s choicest secrets off the menu.