Pentagon invests in high tech, then it’s stolen. What’s the point?

An Israeli Air Force Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter from the 113th Squadron, also known as the Hornet Squadron, lands during a display for the foreign press in Ramon air force base near the Israeli town of Mitzpe Ramon, in the Negev desert, southern Israel, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013.
An Israeli Air Force Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter from the 113th Squadron, also known as the Hornet Squadron, lands during a display for the foreign press in Ramon air force base near the Israeli town of Mitzpe Ramon, in the Negev desert, southern Israel, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. AP

Technology born and bred in the USA has been copied and deployed by Iran against Israel. Crossing into Israeli airspace from Syria last weekend, a trespassing unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, aggressively swept across Israel’s border, only to be tracked and blown out of the air by one of the Israeli Defense Force’s American-made Apache helicopters.

American-made arms regularly face off against American defense doppelgangers. Design plans for U.S. drones, spacecraft, planes, ships — you name it — are all regularly targeted and frequently stolen, copied and deployed by America’s competitors and enemies.

It’s a hard reality: American intellectual property and defense technologies are highly guarded, but vulnerable because U.S. advanced military hardware is highly prized and desired by determined adversaries. In fact, they are the most desirable and successfully stolen of American secrets, whether by Iran or China.

The potentially armed Iranian UAV looked like an American stealth drone and flew like an American stealth drone. If it looks like a duck and flies like a duck, it’s a duck, right? Instead this was a bird of a different feather — an Iranian “Simorgh”, or “Phoenix” in Farsi. A bird that rose from the ashes of a previously downed American drone that fell into Iranian hands for research, reverse engineering, and a run into tiny Israel’s slice of sky.

The “Phoenix” is neither the first, nor likely the last, defense technology that will slip from American fingers into enemy hands. There is a long and troubled history of this activity, aided by traitorous spies and boosted by computer hacks and spoofs.

Space technologies were some of the most highly sought secrets during the Cold War. During my time living and reporting in the Soviet Union, I learned about an exact replica of America’s space shuttle, the “Buran” (“snowstorm” in Russian), an uncanny and undisguised carbon copy of the US orbiter. Successful Soviet spycraft brought reliable shuttle design plans to Moscow. The Red Army then committed funds to create an orbiting and reusable space-based bomber.

The real American space shuttles went up and came down safely 135 times over their 30-year lifespan. The Buran had as many flights as Elon Musk’s Tesla automobile — exactly one. The Soviets never got around to launching their pricey winged spacecraft with a bomb payload.

Fast forward to 2018 and China’s relentless crashing into American contractors’ sometimes defenseless databases to grab bits and bytes of information on bits and pieces of procurements. Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army collected multiple pieces of a puzzle and put together a pretty good picture of America’s most lethal and technologically advanced fighter jet, the F-35. The Chinese J-31 is a highly capable military aircraft that skipped the expensive research and development costs and went for the less expensive and highly effective steal and imitate process. Surprisingly, they did not name it the F-36.

Beijing has purloined multiple defense secrets over the years while the U.S. warily watched, despite a U.S.-China cyber hacking truce. Aside from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet, the PLA also developed copies with Chinese characteristics of the F-22 Raptor, Boeing’s C-17 Globemaster III heavy-lift aircraft, the familiar Predator drone, portable and accurate Javelin anti-tank missiles, the famed and infamous Black Hawk helicopter, the workaday Humvee, and to keep enemies of the state at bay, they copied Raytheon’s Active Denial System. The list may very well go on, but it will likely take Xi Jinping’s next military parade to see what Beijing has recently begotten with a lot of unintentional help from America.

This history of stolen technologies and their intended uses, deployments, and fails around the world are an ongoing cat-and-mouse game, where the United States often dumps false data mixed in with real McCoy info to confuse and deceive absconders. Adversaries often delay their deployment of new technologies as the mélange of real and fake information make data integrity questionable.

Regardless of security fail-safes or intentionally falsified data, materials stolen from American defense firms and government are eventually tested, modified and leveraged by foreign foes. This allows them to slash otherwise expensive domestic R&D costs, accelerate development of next generation weaponry and give them insight and understanding of how to defend against and undermine new American weapons systems and cybersecurity plans.

As the Trump administration boosts defense spending, a final Pentagon budget set to spend more on arms procurement, research and development should also be one that builds in new protections.

Arms manufacturers need to ensure that the weakest links in their supply chain are strong enough to ward off both simple front office phishing attacks and deep server dives into supplier networks, parts manufacturers, and detailed requests for proposals. Otherwise, be prepared for a future where allies and American armed forces are increasingly facing off against American designed and developed weaponry with a Made in China label.

Iran’s drone incursion was not just a thumb in the eye to American arms manufacturers, it was a raised finger to the world’s earliest and most advanced security drone developer: Israel.

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@stanford.edu or on Twitter @KounalakisM.