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April 21st, 2009
03:45 PM ET

Computer hackers stole data on Pentagon's newest fighter aircraft

Mike Mount
CNN Senior Pentagon Producer

Thousands of confidential files on the U.S. military's most technologically advanced fighter aircraft have been compromised by unknown computer hackers over the past two years, according to senior defense officials.

The Internet intruders were able to gain access to data related to the design and electronics systems of the aircraft through computers of Pentagon contractors in charge of designing and building the aircraft, according to the officials, who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

In addition to the intrusion into files of the Joint Strike Fighter, hackers also gained entry into the Air Force's air traffic control systems, according to the officials.

Once broken into, the internet hackers were able to see such information as locations of U.S. military aircraft in flight.

The Joint Striker Fighter plane is the military's new F-35 "Lightning II," also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, it will be the future aircraft used by all of the branches of service.

Most of the files broken into focused on the design and performance statistics of the fighter, as well as its electronic systems, officials said. The information could be used to make the plane easier to fight or defend against.

Additionally, the system used by the aircraft to conduct self diagnostics during flight was also compromised by the computer intrusions, according to the officials who insisted none of the information taken was highly sensitive data.

The plane uses stealth and other highly sensitive electronic equipment to defend itself and fight, but it does not appear that information was compromised because that information is stored on computers that are not connected to the Internet, according to the defense officials.

The Joint Strike Fighter's main contractor is Lockheed Martin Corp. while Northrop Grumman Corp. and BAE Systems PLC are major subcontractors in the planes production.

On a conference call with investors on Tuesday, a Lockheed Martin's chief financial officer denied there was any breach of classified information, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

"The US govt doesn't talk a whole lot about this and neither do we. But in response to the WSJ report, we think it's incorrect," Bruce Tanner, Lockheed Martin's CFO, said. "There's never been any effective attack. We have measures in place and there's never been a successful attack."

In a statement released later, the company reiterated its position that no classified information had been accessed.

"To our knowledge, there has never been any classified information breech. Like the government, we have attacks on our systems continually and have stringent measures in place to detect and stop attacks," the statement said.

BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman spokespeople would not comment on the story and refered all questions to Lockheed Martin.

While the Joint Strike Fighter will have different variants for the different branches of service it will be used in, it also has many international partners helping build the plane and will be sold to U.S. allied countries.

The multiple nations involved raises concern about the level of computer security measures the partner countries have, officials told CNN.

Companies contracting with the Department of Defense now have to prove they are using the proper computer security before a contract can be awarded, Pentagon officials said. A measure put into place within the past year because of the increase in cyber intrusions, they said.

When asked if sensitive technology for the Joint Strike Fighter had been jeopardized, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said, "I am not aware of any specific concerns."

Whitman would not confirm the cyber security breach for on the Joint Strike Fighter program, but said the number of attempted attacks on the US military's network were on the rise.

"We have seen the number of intrusion attempts more than double recently," Whitman said, but he would not reveal a timeline.

Whitman said the computer systems of the Department of defense are scanned thousands of times a day by entities looking for ways inside U.S. military computer networks.

Officials could not say who was behind the computer hacking, which has occurred numerous times since 2007. The intruders were able to cover their tracks making it look like the virtual break-ins were coming from various parts of the world, according to officials. The Wall Street Journal reported that the attacks appeared to orginate in China, citing "former U.S. officials."

Last month a Pentagon annual report to Congress about China's military power said China has been making continued progress in developing cyber warfare techniques.

The report noted that U.S. government computers were the target of "intrusions that appear to have originated" from China, although they were not confirmed to be from the Chinese military.

CNN requested a comment about the accusation from the Chinese Embassy in Washington. An embassy spokesman denied the allegations to the WSJ.

The Air Force, the main program manager of the JSF program, has a number of ongoing investigations into the multiple hackings, officials said.

The officials said a number of safeguards have since been put into place to protect that system.

- Producer Eric Marrapodi contributed to this report


Filed under: 360° Radar • Pentagon
soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Isabel

    The Pentagon has to be smarter and aware with these dark-side hackers. All care is necessary!

    April 21, 2009 at 6:25 pm |
  2. Jacqueline, NY

    Hmm... Maybe American parents should send their children to China to be educated. Where are our bright minds to offset these events?

    April 21, 2009 at 6:21 pm |
  3. Daniel, ATL

    I need to get my computer science degree quickly so I can help Pentagon stop these hackers. I think Pentagon needs Norton Anti Virus. lol

    April 21, 2009 at 6:17 pm |
  4. Annie Kate

    Information that the government or the contractor does not want to be compromised should not be placed on a computer hooked up to an internet – to put it on an internet enabled computer is like inviting cyber thieves to dinner. If for some reason it has to be on an internet enabled computer then there should be various layers of protection to keep people who should not get into the computer off of it – firewalls, security software, password protection, encryption, whatever it takes. And to be sure their protection works just maybe they ought to find them a friendly hacker that has broken in before and pay him to try it again and then point out the vulnerabilities of the system. Far cheaper than having sensitive military information picked up and disseminated by a hacker with unfriendly intentions. And since hackers are constantly improving their skills on cracking through the barriers put in their way, the computer security for this information needs to be an ongoing exercise and not just a one time affair. The best thing though is to just keep it off a computer that is hooked to the net....

    April 21, 2009 at 6:16 pm |
  5. Timothy Gibson

    Why would any of our information on fighter jets or national security be on the internet is a concern.

    It just shows how lacking our nation is in protecting the citizens and the nation from threat and intrusion. The real question is not if we are attacked again within our own borders, but when.

    April 21, 2009 at 6:15 pm |
  6. JC- Los Angeles

    Perhaps the hacker was President Obama and he's planning on making the Pentagon data available to the public shortly.

    April 21, 2009 at 5:48 pm |
  7. Terry, TX

    Ok....why can't they fix this...why are these secret plans even accessible on the internet. This is the second time this year...just call China...but be really...really...polite about it.

    April 21, 2009 at 5:06 pm |
  8. Mohamad

    Cant Wait Until the Air plane model is released O.o

    April 21, 2009 at 4:38 pm |