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Oct. 3, 2019
Notes from the Pentagon

China's new hypersonic missile
China’s large-scale military parade this week featured an array of high-technology arms, but the most significant reveal was a hypersonic missile called the DF-17.

Until the parade in Beijing on Tuesday to mark the 70th anniversary of Communist Party rule, China’s secretive military had not acknowledged the existence of the DF-17. Military spokesmen in the past responded only in vague terms about it after at least six flight tests of the ultra-high-speed missile were carried out since 2014.

U.S. intelligence agencies estimated that the DF-17 would not be deployed until next year. The missile is considered one of what Beijing calls “assassin’s mace” weaponry — arms designed to give China’s weaker military a strategic advantage over the U.S. military.

The DF-17 is the first deployed hypersonic strike weapon for the PLA and can travel at speeds of more than 7,000 miles per hour — enough to outrun current U.S. anti-missile interceptors. Additionally, the missile is said to be maneuverable, a feature that allows it to further avoid electronic detection.

The state-run Xinhua News Agency described the DF-17 as a conventionally armed missile, a possible deception because Pentagon officials in the past told Congress that the missile was expected to be outfitted with either conventional or nuclear warheads.

Until the unveiling this week, the DF-17 was known inside the Pentagon as the Wu-14 and DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle.

Current U.S. missile interceptors, include the Navy’s ship-based SM-3 and the Army’s THAAD and Ground Based Interceptors (GBI), are said to be unable to counter the DF-17.

The 44 GBIs and related sensor systems are capable of stopping long-range missiles and their warheads that travel in non-maneuvering ways, but the high speeds of the DF-17 pose significant challenges for current defenses.

In response to the development of Chinese and Russian hypersonic missiles, the Pentagon is engaged in a crash program to develop hypersonic missile defenses and hypersonic offensive missiles. More than $1 billion is being appropriated for U.S. hypersonic missiles and defenses.

A spending bill in Congress includes funds for a Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor and more than $230 million for speeding up development of hypersonic defenses. The Air Force could receive $576 million in the pending legislation for prototyping hypersonic missiles under a defense appropriations bill.

China’s state-run Global Times said the DF-17 is “very recently developed” and is designed to penetrate missile defenses.

“It will play a vital role in safeguarding China’s territorial integrity, as regions including the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and Northeast Asia are all within its striking range,” said the paper, quoting Yang Chengjun, a Chinese missile expert.

Mr. Yang also said the DF-17 can change trajectories in midflight as a way to avoid interceptor missiles. He added that if U.S. defenses like THAAD and SM-3 can detect the launch, then interception is possible. However that would be difficult because the “launch in actual combat will be done secretly,” Mr. Yang said.

Other major weapons shown off by the Chinese on Tuesday included the new 10-warhead DF-41 and new underwater drones with twin propellers indicating a long-range capability.

The arrest this week in California of Edward Peng on charges of acting as a Chinese intelligence agent provides new details of Beijing’s spy operations in the United States.

Mr. Peng, 56, is a naturalized U.S. citizen and resident of Hayward, California. He was arrested Monday after an FBI counterintelligence double agent operation.

According to court papers, he was operating as an agent of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s civilian spy service, since at least June 2015. FBI video of the counterspy operation showed Mr. Peng passing classified information supplied by an FBI informant by taping it to the bottom of a drawer in a Georgia hotel room for later retrieval by another agent.

An FBI affidavit said the MSS provided their double agent with a new method for passing classified information to the Chinese spy service. Secrets supplied by the FBI as part of the sting were on a small, secure SD card placed inside a book and wrapped in a bag. The package was left at the front desk of a hotel in Newark, California.

Mr. Peng was later spotted picking up the package.

According to the FBI document, an MSS officer told the double agent that Mr. Peng was reliable, had family in China and had done business in China. The officer said Mr. Peng “did not know what he was doing” in acting as a courier.

FBI officials stated that they doubted the MSS explanation and said they believed Mr. Peng was complicit in secret operations and knew it.

The FBI said evidence in the case shows Mr. Peng was schooled in conducting surreptitious dead drops, and then traveling to China to deliver to the MSS.

“I believe ‘Ed’ had been instructed in spycraft, practiced it, and knew that he was working for intelligence operatives of the PRC,” stated FBI agent Spiro Fokas.

The MSS spy handler used several telephones to contact Mr. Peng, calls that were intercepted by the FBI.

In one coded conversation, the SD cards being supplied to the MSS were described as “pills” picked up from dead drops.

Other dead drops were used by the MSS to send money to the double agent. In one case in 2017, Mr. Peng was given $10,000 in cash from the MSS and supplied the equivalent of Chinese renminbi currency in exchange. The money was to be paid to the double agent.

The affidavit said that exchange is “a method employed by the MSS to pay their sources in the U.S. without having the funds transit through the U.S. banking system.”

The arrest of Mr. Peng is the latest in a U.S. crackdown on Chinese intelligence operations, after years of largely ignoring the threat.

“The charges announced today provide a rare glimpse into the secret efforts of the People’s Republic of China to obtain classified national security information from the United States and the battle being waged by our intelligence and law enforcement communities to protect our people, our ideas and our national defense,” said U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson of the Northern District of California.

Disrupting Mr. Peng’s activities is “a significant step in dismantling the PRC’s overall efforts against our country,” said Special Agent in Charge John F. Bennett of the FBI San Francisco Division.

The Pentagon’s defense science board warned that China is seeking to control technical standards for the emerging advanced telecommunications technology known as 5G.

The executive summary of a report by the board concluded that the U.S. military will gain “significant benefits” in using the advanced communications and networking system, including much-improved data transfer rates, shorter delays in information transfers and significant energy savings. But the improvements also come with risks, including cyberthreats.

Other risks include supply chain, cyber, radio frequency (RF)/electronic warfare (EW) and virtual/physical vulnerabilities.

The challenges could “create significant mission risk,” the report said.

“Any deployment of 5G in DoD infrastructure must be measured against mission criticality and acceptable risk,” the report said.

Military operations are increasingly reliant on networked communications and quick data transfers. If those are disrupted, then the operations could be sabotaged.

The report stated that China, the Pentagon’s most significant strategic competitor, is seeking to impose its standards for 5G infrastructure around the world.

“China is known to influence/coordinate positions before major standards decisions and seeks to control future standards,” the report said.

The report recommends adopting 5G for military use in lightly contested areas and develop a secure 5G system for contested environments and critical military applications. The Defense Department’s acquisition office should develop hardened and secure 5G technologies and infrastructure with a focus on protecting supply chains.

The technology is expected to be a part of the military’s autonomous vehicles. Exercises should be held to identify vulnerabilities and attack methods from the use of 5G systems, the board said.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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