There is palpable anxiety over international analysts indicating that IAF’s Sukhoi fighter aircraft, certified fit for flying the mission on May 23, that went down close to the India-China border may have crashed as result of “cyber-interference with the onboard computers” in the cockpit. Given the range and complexity of cyber interference, the source of the attack could have been from thousands of kms away but most likely next door from a Chinese.
There is also speculation about possible EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack, while some discount it outright considering the range and power required for the EMP weapon, though both these factors are very much feasible in the instant case. China‘s cyber warfare program is highly advanced and so are her programs in space and the electromagnetic fields.
China was training some 600 PLA personnel annually in electronic warfare a decade back; the number of which may have gone up. China’s ‘Strategic Support Force’ combines the functions of intelligence, technical reconnaissance, electronic warfare, cyber warfare and space warfare, all of which gives enormous capability to strike silently optimizing these functions.
Such cyber and EMP attacks are not new. In 2010, our INSAT-4B satellite was killed through a cyber attack. In December 2011, Iran’s cyber warfare unit electronically commandeered a state-of-the-art American Lockheed Martin RQ-170 ‘Sentinal’ UAV and safely landed it. In 2015, a Russian Sukhoi flying close to American aircraft Carrier USS Theodore in the Baltic Sea killed the propulsion system of the US ship electronically. USS Donald Cook suffered was similarly struck electronically by a Russian Sukhoi in 2014 in the same area.
Russia has recently claimed Russian Electronic Warfare (REW) troops can: detect and neutralize any target from a ship’s system and a radar, to a satellite; immobilize entire US Navy through an ‘electronic bomb’; and, create electronic jamming domes over their bases that make them invisible on radar screens. There are also indications that North Korean missiles fired going haywire is because of US cyber interference. That the in-flight failure of Agni-2 MRBM on May 4 this during user-testing, as well as the second failure of the ‘Nirbhay’ cruise missile on 21 December 2016, was caused by similar Chinese action is a possibility that cannot be completely discounted either.
Also in the news is the loss of five Army vehicles in the same zone of the Sukhoi crash that according authorities was due to a misfired mortar strike. But international analysts feel a single mortar round would not have enough firepower to take out such a large number of vehicles. According to them, the damage may have been caused by a larger projectile guided by electronic systems that may have been interfered with during flight. It is not known how close the vehicles were parked and what was the damage. But if they were parked close to each other, then a stray mortar bomb could well have damaged them all if fire erupted following the hit.
However, here one may recall the Tianjin explosion in China of August 2015, which was described in Western media quoting Chinese dissidents as an act of “kinetic retaliation” by the Pentagon in response to China’s currency war of Yuan devaluation. UK’s Daily Mail reported the incident that killed 114 people thus, “Last week’s explosions sent massive fireballs into the sky and hurled burning debris across the industrial area at the world’s 10th-largest port, burning out buildings and shattering windows kms away’. On August 11, 2015 China devalued the Yuan by 1.9% sending shockwaves around the world with devastating impact to the US economy.
A day later on August 12, 2015, Tianjin was struck by Pentagon’s secret “Rod of God” weapon, a space-based top-secret kinetic weapon that can be dropped from high orbit to strike almost any land-based target. The weapon instantly destroyed six city blocks on the edge of the city of Tianjin. It was a warning shot by the US – don’t crash the dollar or sell our debt. The Chinese were naturally dumbstruck, enforcing unprecedented security surrounding the mysterious explosion, blocking social media accounts and attempting to control the flow of information, to prevent the public knowing what had happened.
Getting back to downing of the IAF’s Sukhoi on May 23, if this was indeed caused by a Chinese cyber weapon, it is not the loss of precious lives or the cost of the fighter alone (2014 cost of a Sukhoi Mk1 being Rs 358 cr (US456 million)), but the shock, the signal and the timing of China’s cyber attack. Why this Chinese action now? There could be multiple reasons like China miffed with India not supporting the CPEC that adversely affects China’s long-term economic interests, recent visit by Dalai Lama to Arunachal, prelude to PM Modi inaugurating India’s longest bridge connecting Assam with Arunachal Pradesh on May 27, or simply to intimidate India – and by extension signaling the USA.
It could also be a counter to Manohar Parrikar, Defence Minister in 2015 publicly bragging about the under development indigenous weapon KALI (acronym for Kilo Ampere Linear Injector) whose Single Shot Pulsed Gigawatt Electron Accelerator beams can shatter any satellite or UAV, and the Relativistic Electron Beams (REB) can be used in a High-Power Microwave Gun; ultimately capable of destroying any missile or aircraft through soft kill. Somehow we can’t get over the penchant for nonsensical boasts like “we made the army realize their capabilities”, “sent them in like Hanuman”, “if there is one more Uri, Pakistan will lose Balochistan”.
But it is very possible that the above use of Chinese cyber weapon may be linked to the situation developing in Western Pacific and the Korean Peninsula. North Korea conducted another missile tests on May 29 – possible Scud-class ballistic missile that flew some 280 miles and landed in Japan’s maritime economic zone. So North Korea continues to challenge the US and allies, disregarding UN sanctions (made irrelevant over the years by China anyway), with Kim Jong-un prancing around like a spoiled brat with his missiles and nukes.
North Korea has conducted dozens of missile tests and tested two nuclear bombs since the beginning of 2016. On May 27, Voice of America reported that the USS Nimitz will join two other aircraft carriers and their accompanying ships that make up carrier strike groups, the USS Carl Vinson (already in Western Pacific) and the USS Ronald Reagan, in the Western Pacific. USS Ronald Reagan is part of America’s Carrier Strike Group 9, which is based at Yokosuka in Japan. While US may build overwhelming force in the region, its dilemma will be what punishment to be meted to North Korea, when and how effectively will it be considering the underground nuclear and missile facilities that North Korea has.
US President Donald Trump may be of the opinion that China’s “esteemed” President Xi Jinping will remain aloof in case of US attacking North Korea, but this could be a serious miscalculation. The very reason why China assisted nuclear programs of North Korea and Pakistan was that if these countries nuked US and its allies and the same could not traced back to China, it would be good for the latter. Besides, China is smarting under the Tianjin explosion and may have developed its own directed energy weapon as well. In January this year, the Northwest Institute of Nuclear Technology in Xi’an won China’s National Science and Technology Progress Award for a small portable microwave weapon that can be carried by aircraft / helicopter / drone, even fitted inside a cruise missile; powerful enough to totally down enemy electronics including of incoming missiles.
The US already has such EMP/high powered microwave cruise missiles, like the CHAMP, built by Boeing for DARPA that can sneak into enemy airspace to disable a wide range of C4ISR, air defence, missile and armored targets, even destroying electronic systems permanently.
In all probability, China will keep instigating North Korea to continue challenging the US with more missile / nuclear tests to the point of even absorbing some damage to test its own soft-kill capability against US forces while posing as bystander. The downing of the IAF Sukhoi by China could both be testing her cyber capabilities and signal to deter US attacking North Korea.