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Nov. 9, 2023
Notes from the Pentagon

Congressional commission focuses on Chinese influence operations including on social media

By Bill Gertz
The congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission is set to release its annual report later this month and a preview of the report reveals the panel will focus in one section on Chinese influence operations, including the targeting by Chinese security and intelligence services of social media platforms such as Facebook, X, TikTok and YouTube.

Beijing’s objective is to promote pro-China narratives and attack critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

The forthcoming report also examines the Chinese military’s development of advanced weaponry, including a unique planet-orbiting nuclear strike weapon capable of attacking the United States. The People’s Liberation Army is also using artificial intelligence in a bid to achieve military superiority over the United States.

Much of the military buildup has been assisted by the theft of American technology. Among the U.S. weapons systems stolen and now incorporated into Chinese weapons are the Aegis ballistic missile defense system, the F-35 jet, the Littoral Combat Ship, and electromagnetic railguns.

F-22 fighter features were also incorporated into China’s J-20 fighter, and the J-31 jet also appears based on stolen F-35 technology. China’s Caihong unmanned aerial vehicle appears to have been built with stolen designs from the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone.

The C-17 transport is also mentioned as the basis for China’s new Y-20 transport. The relatively new transport is viewed as a major force-projection platform for moving troops and equipment that would boost plans for a future Taiwan attack.

China stole critical C-17 technology from Boeing Corp. in a major hacking operation led by Chinese businessman Su Bin, who pleaded guilty in 2016 to conspiracy to hack defense contractors, including Boeing. Court documents in the case included an intercepted August 2013 email to Chinese military superiors that revealed that a covert operation had hacked into Boeing systems and obtained 85,000 files on the C-17 between December 2009 and January 2010.

The translated email stated that the Boeing hack proved a major success for Chinese weapons developers. The cost to the U.S. of research and development for the C-17 was $3.4 billion, while the hacking operation to obtain the key elements of aircraft cost 2.7 million yuan — $393,201.98 — for the entire Chinese cyberspying operation, the email said.

The email said that “we safely, smoothly accomplished the entrusted mission in one year,” adding that the hackers broke through to the internal Boeing network in January 2010. “Through painstaking labor and slow groping, we finally discovered C-17 strategic transport aircraft-related materials stored in the secret network.”

The forthcoming China commission report is also expected to provide new details on China’s global pressure campaign against Taiwan. The report says that Beijing is engaged in major disinformation and “united front” operations targeting the island’s January 2024 presidential elections, designed to stoke social divisions and demoralize Taiwan’s population.

Pentagon: Chinese nuke missile subs on armed patrols
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s annual report will be the second major government report on the Chinese military to be made public in as many months.

The Pentagon released its annual report on China’s military last month that provided a wealth of new details about Beijing’s major military buildup, including updating the status of Chinese nuclear missile submarine patrols.

The U.S. Strategic Command has said for several years that China’s six Jin-class nuclear missile submarines would soon begin conducting actual “deterrent patrols” — operational maneuvers with nuclear-armed JL-2 missiles. The 2022 Pentagon report said the Jin submarines “likely” began sea patrols with armed nuclear missiles.

That was updated in the latest report stating that the six missile boats “are conducting at-sea deterrent patrols.”

The confirmation is a marked shift for the Chinese military, which remains reluctant to trust its naval officers with control over nuclear weapons.

For years, U.S. intelligence analysts questioned whether China would arm missile submarines with nuclear warheads, based on the Chinese military’s longstanding practice of keeping warheads separate from missiles in underground storage bunkers.

The nuclear sea patrols are part of what former Strategic Command commander Adm. Charles Richard called “nuclear breakout” by the PLA, a breakout that is complicating the ability of the United States to maintain a strategic deterrent posture.

The Pentagon report states that the missile submarines are armed with up to 12 sea-launched ballistic missiles, specifically JL-2s and longer-range JL-3s. The sub represents China’s “first viable sea-based nuclear deterrent,” the report said.

“With six operational SSBNs, the [Chinese navy] has the capacity to maintain a constant at-sea deterrent presence,” the report states. “With a range of approximately 3,900 nautical miles, a Jin equipped with the JL-2 would have to operate in the mid-Pacific Ocean in order to threaten targets in the western half of the continental United States (as well as Hawaii and Alaska), or east of Hawaii in order to threaten targets on the east coast of the United States.”

The new JL-3 will have a range of 5,400 nautical miles and be able to target portions of the continental United States from Chinese littoral waters. In addition to the current six Jin-class submarines, the Chinese navy will deploy a more modern missile submarine, the Type 096, by the late 2020s or early 2030s.

By comparison, the first of the U.S. Navy’s new Columbia-class nuclear missile submarines is slated for deployment in 2027.

The Chinese nuclear submarine threat is said to be a key driver behind the joint development of Australia’s nuclear-powered attack submarine program with U.S. and British governments.

The Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute stated in a report published in August that China’s Jin-class submarines lack good stealth features and are relatively noisy. The submarine’s JL-2 missiles also lack the range to hit U.S. targets.

“If China wishes to be able to reach east coast targets, the Jin SSBNs will have to venture far out into the Pacific Ocean,” the report said, noting that if they are outfitted with longer-range JL-3s as expected, the [People’s Liberation Army] can then “cover the entire U.S. while operating within deep bastions near the mainland China coast.”

Forthcoming Type 096 submarines are expected to be quieter and thus more difficult to track and target.

State Department hails China arms talks
After several years of refusing to hold arms talks, China this week sent an official to meet with a State Department arms control official to discuss U.S. and Chinese nuclear arsenals.

Mallory Stewart, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, met with Sun Xiabo, director general of the Foreign Ministry’s arms control department.

A brief State Department notice described the exchange on Monday as “constructive” and “a candid and in-depth discussion on issues related to arms control and nonproliferation.”

“The United States emphasized the importance of increased [Chinese] nuclear transparency and substantive engagement on practical measures to manage and reduce strategic risks across multiple domains, including nuclear and outer space,” the statement said.

Ms. Stewart “highlighted the need to promote stability, help avert an unconstrained arms race, and manage competition so that it does not veer into conflict,” the statement said.

Chinese state media said the talks involved “in-depth, frank and constructive exchanges” on issues such as the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, cooperation among five major nuclear powers, “nuclear security, non-proliferation and export control, biosecurity compliance, outer space security and conventional arms control.”

“Beijing emphasized that both sides should uphold a common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security perspective; respect each other’s sovereignty, security and development interests; enhance strategic mutual trust; and work towards maintaining the international arms control and non-proliferation system,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

During the Trump administration, U.S. arms control negotiators sought to include Chinese representatives in ongoing talks with Russia, but Beijing refused to participate.

China has said in the past it would not join arms talks until U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals have been reduced to around the size of Beijing’s strategic forces. China, however, is engaged in a major nuclear expansion that includes deployment of an estimated 320 land-based multi-warhead missiles in western China.

A Chinese diplomat was quoted in leaked State Department cables posted by WikiLeaks years ago as stating that China did not want to engage in arms talks because doing so would reveal secrets about its arsenal that would undermine the country’s deterrent strategy.

Retired Navy Capt. James Fanell and China affairs analyst Bradley Thayer warned in a recently published article that entering arms talks with Beijing poses a threat to American security.

“Historically, the [People’s Republic of China] has been loath to enter arms control talks,” they wrote in the online journal American Greatness.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party’s “unstated but fundamental strategic objectives are to weaken U.S. national security,” they said.

“Taking a page from the Soviet Union’s playbook, [China] will respond to any critique of its rapid nuclear expansion as threatening progress in arms control. … These talks will make it that much harder as any [U.S. nuclear force] modernization will be characterized as threatening the ‘arms control process’ and the prospect of improving relations with” China, Capt. Fanell and Mr. Thayer said.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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