A Bad Nightmare
I had a nightmare. I was in a sort of futuristic lab with grayish walls; I was surrounded by Chinese swiftly moving around in white blouses; they looked like scientists busy working on a new machine which, in my dream, appeared to be a large ultramodern photocopier with a bluish light coming from a front opening.
The parts of what seemed to be a fighter jet of the last generation came out of the machine at regular interval. I guessed that the ‘scientists’ were reconstructing an aircraft because a small model stood on a nearby table. The dreadful part of the ‘vision’, and the one which woke me up, was that I recognized the French Rafale, the very same twin-engine delta-wing fighter aircraft designed and built by Dassault Aviation, that India is ‘painfully’ trying to acquire for its Air Force.
As I was slowly emerged from dreamland, a bitter feeling lingered, were the Chinese scientists assembling the French plane to attack India?
But why a Rafale? The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has its own J-10 or other Sukhois with Chinese characteristics. A few days earlier, I had even read that nuclear-capable SU-27s were deployed on the Gongkar airport near Lhasa in Tibet.
A couple of months ago, J-10 fighters had conducted ground attack training over the Roof of the World. The PLA Daily had then said that the ground crew of the J-10 regiment fueled the fighters and loaded ammunition at an altitude of 3,500-meter and a polar temperature of -20 C. The fighters were said to have scrambled and later attacked life targets with their laser-guided bombs.
To come back to my bad dream, I had probably read too much about the prowess of the Chinese hackers during the past weeks. Take a US report prepared by the Defense Science Board; Reuters had spoken of Washington’s worries: “Chinese hackers have gained access to designs of more than two dozen major US weapons systems.”
The Washington Post had even affirmed that the ‘stolen’ designs included the advanced Patriot missile system, the Navy’s Aegis ballistic missile defense systems, the F/A-18 fighter jet, the V-22 Osprey, the Black Hawk helicopter and the F-35 strike fighter.
Though still half groggy, these reports came vividly back to mind. Could China steal plans from Dassault, the French firm too? Everything is possible with China.
French Defence Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian recently said at a seminar on cyber-security: “Have we been too naïve, too confident with the advent of Internet or more generally with the Information Technology? To understand the strategic character of this stake and acknowledge its global nature is a major challenge that our major parties have well understood.” Did Le Drian mean that something went wrong in France? Or was it only a bad dream?
Another question came to my mind: has China the ability to bring down the communication networks and corrupt vital information in the case of a conflict? That would be a ‘real’ nightmare.
The US Report had stated: “China is using its computer network exploitation (CNE) capability to support intelligence collection against the US diplomatic, economic, and defense industrial base sectors that support US national defense programs. …In 2012, numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the US government, continued to be targeted for intrusions, some of which appear to be attributable directly to the Chinese government and military.”
It was the first time that a US Government report explicitly named China as the origin of the cyber attacks: “The information targeted by the cyber spying could possibly benefit China’s arms and technology sectors.”
Why would the PLA also harass smaller nations like India or France?
The answer is: for the same reason that it attacks the United States.
A few weeks earlier, the Pentagon had accused China of using espionage to modernize its military; the US government had been the target of hacking ‘attributable directly to the Chinese government and military’. In February already, the US computer security firm Mandiant had affirmed that a PLA unit was behind a series of hacking attacks targeting the US and that the data from some 100 US companies had been stolen.
It is clear: China is working hard to catch up in the defence sector.
While India is taking its own sweet time to negotiate ‘the deal of the century’, China is taking great leaps forward to modernize its PLAAF.
As usual, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman said that the US report was ‘erroneous’; the latest Chinese hacking bouts are nevertheless bound to speed up the Middle Kingdom’s R&D programs in avionics.
The spokesman argued that China already had the ability to build the weapons needed for national security; why should Beijing steal designs.
The recurrence of facts, not only in the US, is however extremely disturbing, not to say nightmarish.
Take Australia, the Chinese ‘dark visitors’ have taken a step further: they have stolen the blueprints of the country’s new intelligence headquarters.
That is not all. The People’s Daily reported that the PLA would soon conduct its first joint drills involving cyberwarfare, special troops, army aviation and electronic countermeasures units “to test the integration and co-ordination of its land and air forces”.
A brief report by Xinhua announced that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will conduct an exercise to test new types of combat forces including units using digital technology ‘amid efforts to adjust to informationalized war’. The official news agency said that it will be the first time a PLA exercise focuses on combat forces including digitalized units, special operations forces, army aviation and electronic counter forces.
According to the PLA’s General Staff Department, the drill will be held at the end of June at the Zhurihe air base, China’s largest military training center in Inner Mongolia: “Eight military academies will also join the exercises. …The high-profile drills were aimed at showing the world China had successfully narrowed the gap with Western countries in terms of modern warfare strategies.”
Clearly, the PLA is keen to test its IT skills as the drill will simulate ‘non-contact assaults’ alongside conventional operations.
Xu Guangyu , a former general now associated with China Arms Control and Disarmament Association in Beijing told The South China Morning Post: “‘Non-contact assaults means digital operations, including cyberwarfare, electronic warfare and intelligence warfare systems, as well as others. …Assault operations’ doesn’t mean the PLA will stage a ‘pre-emptive strike’ drill, but it is based on the existing ‘active defence strategy’ to simulate how to fight back if our country is invaded.”
According to Xinhua, the PLA will test new types of combat forces including units using digital technology in order to prepare for an informationalised war.
But it was only a few days later when I read about a new technology called 3-D printing that I truly understood the meaning of my bad dream. It appears that the Chinese Defence laboratories have been extensively using 3-D printing technology for its aviation industry, thereby saving money, materials and time.
One could now imagine that once detailed plans are ‘borrowed’ from the best US or French laboratories, China is able to create aircraft components from 3-D printers. It bypasses the traditional manufacturing processes such as casting, forging and assembling.
3-D printing, or laser rapid forming, is the manufacturing technology of tomorrow. Blueprints made on computers (or stolen from third parties’ computers) can be turned into actual objects by a special printer which adds layer after layer of different materials until the designed shape is materialized.
Stratasys, the world’s leading manufacturer of 3-D printers affirms that its printers are able to combine more than 100 different materials to form a 3-D product; it includes wood, plastics or metals.
Apparently, this technology would have been used for preparing parts and components of the C-919, China’s first commercial airliner, the J-15 jet fighter; the J-15 and J-16 multi-role fighters as well as the 2 stealth planes, the J-20 and the J-31. So, the possibility of building a Rafale is not so ‘illusory’ after all.
Obviously, the prototype may not yet come out of a 3-D printer, but the technology could greatly speed up the production process.
Remember former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates had announced that China would not have a ‘fifth-generation aircraft by 2020’, but the day Gates landed in Beijing in January 2011, the J-20’s had a successful maiden test flight in Chengdu, Sichuan.
Suddenly I realised that China may have taken India for a ride in the desolate plateau of Depsang Plain. While the planners in South Block will now strengthen the defenses of Ladakh, and eventually one day sign a deal to get the latest multipurpose fighter planes, China is working with its 3-D printers on the future generation of aircraft, or a Rafale, and also on the next ‘informationalised’ war. So many nightmares to come!
By Claude Arpi