SIMI VALLEY, Calif. ― Several U.S. defense leaders said Saturday they are worried that a confrontation with China over Taiwan would lead to a wave of significant cyberattacks against U.S. critical infrastructure that could disrupt day-to-day life.
“I’m particularly concerned about them in terms of what they might do in terms of cyberattacks on our critical infrastructure here in the United States,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum.
“There’s a real possibility that if we ever got into a conflict you could see attacks on our power grid, for example, or the transportation sector, which would have implications not only for how we would be able to project our military, but also have substantial consequences for the American public.”
The comments came amid rising tensions between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, the democratically-ruled island which China considers its own territory. Over the past year, China has increased the frequency of incursions of its aircraft breaching Taiwan’s air defense buffer zone. It also follows news of a recent suspected Chinese hacking campaign against U.S. defense and tech companies.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., said here that he expects there would be a “major” attack that “would be disruptive to American society” and target critical assets like the reserve aviation and maritime fleets critical to ferrying troops and supplies.
“Looking at Taiwan, I don’t think it would be the traditional D-Day because that would take months to organize,” Reed said, adding that cyberwarfare would be a significant feature. “We have to build our defenses, which we’re trying, and be able to counteract.”
Speaking separately, Republican Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher argued Washington needs a way to better war-game and communicate the risk of a devastating cyber attack on U.S. infrastructure, if the U.S. confronts China over Taiwan. American water, power and transportation systems would be at risk.
“In such a confrontation, Las Vegas rules would not apply. What happens in the Taiwan Straits would not be confined there,” said Gallagher, who co-chaired the bipartisan, congressionally mandated Cyberspace Solarium Commission.
“I just fear we’re not attacking this with a sense of urgency,” Gallagher said. “I feel like unless we change course, that we’re going to lose World War III before it begins.”
Also at the conference, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. is working to support Taiwan’s ability to defend itself in line with the Taiwan Relations Act, and he warned that China is edging toward its own nuclear triad of land, air and sea-launched intercontinental nuclear weapons.
While China’s made recent progress with cyber capabilities, nuclear weapons, space and hypersonic weapons, he said those moves should be met “with confidence and resolve — not panic and pessimism.” He added later, “We’re clear-eyed about the challenge that China presents, but China’s not 10 feet tall.”
Asked in a discussion with Fox News’ Bret Baier what keeps him up at night, Austin said it was adversaries’ space and cyber capabilities.
“Sometimes the next serious challenge can come from a place that you don’t expect,” he said. “I want to make sure we have sufficient capabilities in cyber and space that compliment the rest of the inventory.”
The defense forum, in its eighth year, brings together lawmakers and defense leaders for a day of discussions on national security strategy, priorities and challenges.
With reporting by the Associated Press.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.