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May 4, 2017
Notes from the Pentagon

Chinese supercomputers threaten U.S. security
China is eclipsing the United States in developing high-speed supercomputers used to build advanced weapons, and the loss of American leadership in the field poses a threat to U.S. national security.

That’s the conclusion of a recent joint National Security Agency-Energy Department study, based on an assessment of China’s new supercomputer called the TaihuLight.

“National security requires the best computing available, and loss of leadership in [high-performance computing] will severely compromise our national security,” the report warns.

Supercomputers play a “vital role” in the design, development and analysis of almost all modern weapons systems, including nuclear weapons, cyberwarfare capabilities, ships, aircraft, communications security, missile defense, precision-strike capabilities and hypersonic weapons, the report said.

China is rapidly developing hypersonic strike missiles that can deliver conventional and nuclear payloads by maneuvering past advanced missile defenses.

“Loss of leadership in [high-performance computing] could significantly reduce the U.S. nuclear deterrence and the sophistication of our future weapons systems,” the report says.

“Conversely, if China fields a weapons system with new capabilities based on superior [high-performance computing], and the U.S. cannot accurately estimate its true capabilities, there is a serious possibility of over- or underestimating the threat.”

A copy of the 18-page report, “U.S. Leadership in High Performance Computing (HPC): A Report from the NSA-DOE Technical Meeting on High Performance Computing,” dated Dec. 1, has been obtained by Inside the Ring.

Chinese supremacy in computer capabilities also could produce distortions in allocating defense funds for U.S. research and development, and strategic policymaking and result in “incorrect responses to world events,” the report said.

Currently, the United States has a cost-effective supercomputer capability. But loss of U.S. leadership in the field would result in acquisition of supercomputers in ways similar to Pentagon acquisition of aircraft carriers — at vastly increased costs.

For industrial applications, if the United States were to become reliant on Chinese supercomputers, it “could threaten the loss of intellectual property and competitive edge.”

“Personal email and private information, social networks and the emerging Internet of Things are all subject to even greater privacy risks if offshore entities have superior HPC analytics or control the data/information markets,” the report said.

The report called for a surge in U.S. government investment and action in supercomputing, including the priorities outlined in the 2016 National Strategic Computing Initiative Plan.

Energy Department national laboratories and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity are working on cutting-edge supercomputers.

The study was based on a two-day conference in September of some 60 experts, including 40 from U.S. government agencies, 10 from the technology industry and 10 from academia and other organizations.

The Pentagon is two years late in supplying Congress with a study on new strategies for countering unconventional warfare threats posed by Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, chairwoman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on emerging threats, pressed a senior Pentagon official on the subject during a hearing Tuesday. The study was required in 2015 legislation.

“This strategy, which is now almost two years late, ultimately can help provide a way to ensure that our ends, ways and means are aligned to help counter these unconventional threats,” said Ms. Stefanik, New York Republican.

Unconventional warfare is the use of nonkinetic warfare capabilities ranging from cyber and electronic attacks to “influence operations” using political, media and legal means.

In response, Theresa Whelan, assistant defense secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said unconventional warfare is an emerging threat and the Pentagon is studying the issue. Ms. Whelan noted that the military’s counterterrorism mission has been the main focus of low-intensity conflict.

“We have, as a consequence, had to shift resources to focus on this and develop capabilities and knowledge bases that had, to certain extent, atrophied over the years,” she said.

“But also, because the nature of UW has fundamentally changed because of 21st-century technologies and techniques, we really in many ways have been starting from scratch. And that has been one of the challenges that we’ve faced as we dug into this over the last 18 to 24 months.”

Russia used hybrid warfare to take over Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its cyber-enabled influence operation targeting the 2016 U.S. presidential election. China has been using similar information operations in its bid to gradually take control of the South China Sea.

Examples of Iranian information operations have included cyberattacks on U.S. banks and a waterway control system in upstate New York.

North Korea has used extensive cyberattacks to achieve objectives — including the cyberattack on Sony Picture Entertainment and cyberattacks on banks in Asia that netted the regime in Pyongyang tens of million of dollars.

The Pentagon is working with other U.S. government agencies to deal with what Ms. Whalen called “multiple threats” from foreign information operations.

Georgetown University has conducted a study for the Pentagon that found that America’s adversaries are “focusing on the seams between our organizational entities and trying to exploit those seams and decision-making cycles in order to gain advantage on us in the space that essentially is below conventional war — the space that we now refer to as the gray zone or hybrid warfare,” Ms. Whalen said.

Two research projects are underway on the topic of unconventional warfare, one at Johns Hopkins University on Russian hybrid warfare, and a Pentagon research effort to develop predictive analytic technologies.

The technologies “will help us identify when countries are utilizing unconventional warfare techniques at levels essentially below our normal observation thresholds,” Ms. Whalen said.

After the Russia unconventional warfare strategy is completed, the Pentagon will look at Chinese and Iranian unconventional warfare threats, she added. “This continues to be an evolving threat.”

The global Islamic terrorist movement could not function without the internet and defeating terrorism online is possible, according to a report by the Middle East Research Institute (MEMRI).

“Jihadi organizations used the web to recruit supporters and fighters, provide practical instruction and manuals for terror operations including car bomb and ramming attacks, make arch-terrorists into heroic models for emulation, and raise funds for their activity,” the report says. “The internet provided them with an ideal vehicle for spreading their ideas, even to young children.”

Recently, social media companies have begun to lose advertising revenue as a result of hateful content on their sites. Companies including Johnson & Johnson, Toyota, General Motors, Wal-Mart, AT&T and HSBC have pulled ads to protest terrorist videos, the report said.

Governments also are pressuring media to remove hateful speech, and families have begun to sue internet companies for carrying content that incited and radicalized terrorists who killed relatives.

The MEMRI report said the measures are good first steps but that more needs to be done. The internet should be purged of jihadi propaganda and incitement content through financial investments, and new technologies could identify and remove jihadi material.

“Purging the internet of jihadi content can deal with terrorism at its source, and can have an immediate impact on recruitment, indoctrination and training of terrorists,” the report said. “This will significantly reduce the threat which will, in turn, enable Western democracies to reduce the degree of infringement upon our liberties, freedoms and daily life.”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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