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Defense Leaders Weigh Evolving Cyber Threats in Indo-Pacific Region

A new report outlined China’s growing priority in the cyberspace realm and what it means for U.S. national security.

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Indopacific: DOD's Report Details China's Growing Cyber Capabilities
230211-N-BI507-1120 SOUTH CHINA SEA (Feb. 11, 2023) An E-2C Hawkeye from the "Sun Kings" of Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 116 launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68). Nimitz is in U.S. 7th Fleet conducting routine operations. 7th Fleet is the U.S. Navy's largest forward-deployed numbered fleet, and routinely interacts and operates with Allies and partners in preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Carson Croom

China’s growing sophistication of its cyberspace capabilities is putting more attention on the criticality for the Pentagon to develop innovative technology and cybersecurity solutions across the Indo-Pacific region.

“The world is changing. The space domain and the cyber domain are no longer this ethereal thing that nobody knows about,” said Adm. John Aquilino, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, at the AFCEA TechNet Indo-Pacific conference in Honolulu last week.

Defense leaders point to this evolving domain as the reason for prioritizing technology and software advancements.

“Here our pacing threat is China,” Defense Department Chief Software Officer Rob Vietmeyer told GovCIO Media & Research in an interview in Honolulu. “If we look at the modern battle space, it’s no longer about who can bring the most warfighting power. … When we look at the modern infrastructure, it is almost entirely software-defined.”

A 2023 unclassified Pentagon report to Congress outlined China’s increasing focus on the cyberspace domain to gain economic and military advantage.

“[China] has publicly identified cyberspace as a critical domain for national security and declared its intent to expedite the development of its cyber forces,” the report said, adding that China “is advancing its cyberspace attack capabilities and has the ability to launch cyberspace attacks — such as disruption of a natural gas pipeline for days to weeks — in the United States.”

Experts around the industry have discussed how such attacks could have incredible risk to critical infrastructure and national security, especially amid technology modernization initiatives.

“China is really looking to seek out to have the capability and capacity to use cyber in a more deliberate way. You could call it disruptive, you could call it distractive. But beyond just stealing intellectual property, beyond just espionage for intelligence purposes,” said Jason McMahan, industry relationship manager at the National Security Agency, during the CyberSatGov event in Reston, Virginia, last week.

“These multifaceted campaigns have the potential to offset any advantages artificial intelligence brings to cyber defenses, a reality on display in the recent discovery of malware in U.S. critical infrastructure,” said CSIS International Security Fellow Benjamin Jensen during a House hearing on IP and Strategic Competition with China in September.

Cyber Threats Across the Indo-Pacific Region

North Korea is another threat in the region with its growing capabilities in cyberspace capabilities, particularly its theft of cryptocurrency to fund its military and nuclear weapons program.

This year, the FBI identified the North Korean government-backed Lazarus Group responsible for the $100 million theft in crypto assets from Harmony Horizon, a cross-chain bridge for the cryptocurrency Ethereum.

The North Korean group was also behind the theft of $41 million in crypto assets from Stake, an online casino platform.

“North Korea frequently uses its cyber capabilities to further a variety of national goals from stealing cryptocurrency to fund its nuclear and missile program to espionage on organizations related to COVID-19 research,” said Center for Security and Emerging Technology Research Fellow at Georgetown University Jenny Jun at a July 2023 House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Indo-Pacific hearing.


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