BEIJING — For almost two years, hackers based in Shanghai went after one foreign defense contractor after another, at least 20 in all.
Their target, according to a U.S. cybersecurity company that monitored the attacks, was the technology behind the United States’ clear lead in military drones.
“I believe this is the largest campaign we’ve seen that has been focused on drone technology,” said Darien Kindlund, manager of threat intelligence at the company, FireEye, based in California. “It seems to align pretty well with the focus of the Chinese government to build up their own drone technology capabilities.”
The hacking operation, conducted by a group called “Comment Crew” — which another cybersecurity company said has ties to the People’s Liberation Army — was one of the most recent signs of the ambitions of China’s drone development program.
While Chinese Foreign Ministry officials have said China does not sanction hacking and is itself a victim, the government and military are still striving to put China at the forefront of drone manufacturing — for their own use and for export —and have made an all-out push to gather domestic and international technology to support the program.
China is now dispatching its own drones into potential combat arenas. Every major arms manufacturer in China has a research center devoted to drones, according to Chinese and foreign military analysts. Those companies have shown off dozens of models to potential foreign buyers at international air shows.
Military analysts say China has long tried to replicate foreign drone designs. Some Chinese drones appearing at recent air shows have closely resembled foreign ones.
Ian Easton, a military analyst at the Project 2049 Institute in Virginia, said cyberespionage was one tool in an extensive effort over years to purchase or develop drones domestically using all available technology, foreign and domestic.
Chinese engineers and officials have done reverse engineering, studied open source material and debriefed U.S. drone experts who attend conferences and other meetings in China.
“This can save them years of design work and mistakes,” Easton said.
The Chinese military has not released statistics on the size of its drone fleet, but a Taiwan Defense Ministry report said that as of mid-2011, the Chinese air force alone had more than 280 drone units, and analysts say the other branches have thousands. That means China’s fleet count is second only to the 7,000 or so of the United States.
“The military significance of China’s move into unmanned systems is alarming,” said a 2012 report by the Defense Science Board, a Pentagon advisory committee.
China’s domestic security apparatus, whose $124 billion official budget this year is larger than that of the military, is also keenly interested in drones, which raises questions about the potential use of drones for surveillance and possibly even attacks inside China.
For the Obama administration and U.S. business executives, no method of Chinese technology acquisition is more worrisome than cyberespionage. A U.S. official confirmed that drone technology had been stolen by hackers.
FireEye, the cybersecurity company in California, called the drone theft campaign Operation Beebus. Although the initial victims in Operation Beebus were large defense contractors, the hackers began to pick out companies that specialized in drone technology, said Kindlund, FireEye’s threat intelligence manager. They then alternated between large companies that made a wide range of military technology and boutique firms that focused on drones.
Chinese drones are increasingly appearing in the arsenals of other nations. The Chinese version of the Predator, a U.S. model, was first exported in 2011, according to People’s Daily. At the Paris Air Show in June, the president of a Chinese aeronautics company told the Global Times that the drone could carry two laser-guided missiles and was the equal of the Predator in endurance and flight range, but was much cheaper.