Experts disagree on the potential effect of attacks on U.S. government agencies and private companies.
If the United States and China were to find themselves in an armed conflict, China is likely to launch cyber attacks on American regional bases in Japan and South Korea, and might even include cyber attacks on the U.S. homeland that target financial, economic, energy and communications infrastructures.
According to Gen. James Cartwright, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, China is already actively engaging in cyber-reconnaissance through the probing of computer networks of U.S. government agencies and private companies.
Cartwright said the data collected from these reconnaissance probes can be used for many purposes, including identifying network weak points, understanding how U.S. leaders think, discovering the communication patterns of government agencies and private companies, and gaining valuable information stored throughout the networks.
Cartwrights comments are part of the annual report submitted to Congress Nov. 15 by the U.S.-China Economic Review Commission.
"I think that we should start to consider that regret factors associated with a cyber-attack could, in fact, be in the magnitude of a weapon of mass destruction," Cartwright told the Commission, referring to the psychological effects that would be generated by the sense of disruption and chaos caused by a cyber-attack.
However, James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the panel that cyber-attacks are more likely to strengthen the resolve of the targeted population than to cause real damage.
"The effect is usually to solidify resistance, to encourage people to continue the fight, and if you havent actually badly damaged their abilities to continue to fight, all youve done is annoy them, and what many of us call cyber-attacks [are] not weapons of mass destruction but weapons of mass annoyance," Lewis said.
Despite the different estimates of potential damage from cyber-attacks, all the panelists agreed that developing asymmetric capabilities is a primary focus of the Chinese governments military modernization efforts.
The Financial Times Sept. 3 reported that China had penetrated a Pentagon network in June in what current and former government officials are calling "the most successful cyber-attack on the U.S. [Defense] Department."
The Financial Times also reported that Pentagon officials acknowledged shutting down part of a computer system serving the office of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, but then declined to point fingers at who might be behind the attack. The Financial Times cited officials whove said that an internal investigation has traced the attack back to China.
After the report, China again denounced charges that the Peoples Liberation Army has been engaged in hostile hacking of government sites and characterized the "wild accusations" as smacking of a bygone era.
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"The Chinese government has all along [been] opposed to and cracked down upon any cyber-crimes undermining the computer network, including hacking, according to law," Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu said during a press conference Sept. 4.
"Some people make wild accusations against China, suggesting that the PLA made a cyber-raid against the Pentagon. This is totally groundless and a reflection of Cold War mentality."
The U.S.-China Economic Review Commission recommended that Congress urge the Bush administration to press Beijing to engage in a series of measures that would provide more information about its strategic intentions and the ultimate purpose of its increasing military expenditures.
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