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The U.S. weapons systems that experts say were hacked by the Chinese

Chinese cyberspies are believed to have compromised the designs for more than two dozen major weapons systems, as the Washington Post's Ellen Nakashima laid out in a must-read story that cited a report prepared for the Pentagon.

The gravity of that breach becomes more clear when you understand exactly which designs were apparently hacked -- and how big a role some of these weapons play in U.S. defense.

Many of the weapons, comprised mostly of military aircraft, missile defense systems and military communications systems, were deployed in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some, like the C-17, have been around in some form for decades. Others are nascent technologies still in development -- Boeing is still working on the Poseidon aircraft that will do maritime recon for the U.S. Navy, for instance.

There's also some indication that this breach will resonate outside the U.S. Many of these weapons, developed by military contractors like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, were also sold abroad. One missile developed by Raytheon is used by militaries in 36 countries.

Now on to the scary stuff -- the actual weapons whose designs that the report says were compromised. The following relate to missile defense; some have been deployed overseas and would theoretically protect the U.S. in the event of an attack:

The experts say the hackers also obtained design information for several military aircraft, manned and unmanned:

  • The F-35, a stealth aircraft that contractors market as the "fifth-generation" fighter jet -- far more difficult to see on radar than other planes. It is, at an estimated cost of $1.4 trillion, the most expensive weapons system ever built.
  • The V-22, a "tiltrotor aircraft" that takes off and lands like a helicopter, but converts to a turboprop airplane for flight -- making it a convenient way to transport troops and supplies in areas without runways. (Many combat zones, in other words.) A Navy Web site quotes Donald Wurster, an Air Force Lieutenant General, calling the V-22 "the most significant transformation ... since the introduction of the helicopter."
  • The C-17, a military-transport aircraft that has -- per Boeing, its manufacturer -- "delivered cargo in every worldwide operation since the 1990s."
  • Global Hawk, a surveillance drone that provides near-real-time, high-resolution images and was first deployed in Afghanistan.
  • Micro Air Vehicle, a class of tiny, unmanned aircraft -- sometimes as tiny as birds or bugs. A March feature in National Geographic laid out the Air Force's plans for micro drones that "swarm through alleys, crawl across windowsills, and perch on power lines" unseen. The writer points to this video:
  • P-8A/Multi-Mission Aircraft, or Poseidon, a long-range surveillance aircraft currently under development for the U.S. Navy.
  • F/A and EA-18, a Navy warfighter that specializes in "electronic attack," especially jamming enemy signals.
  • The UH-60 Black Hawk, an Army helicopter.

And finally, hackers also obtained information on military communications systems:

  • The Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T), which is essentially how the military gets Internet, cellular and data access in war zones.
  • Hawklink, a high-speed communication system that broadcasts video, radar and other data between Navy helicopters and host ships. A five-year contract for the system, awarded in September 2012, was worth $181 million.

The breach actually doesn't end here -- hackers also apparently got information about a number of U.S. military technologies, from dual use avionics (which involves airspace communication) to directed energy (laser weapons, like those researched at Kirtland Air Force Base).

It's unclear, at this point, what impact the hacks will have -- though as several experts told Nakashima, the breach is certainly significant. A Pentagon report to Congress earlier this month called cyber-espionage a key tool in China's quest to overcome the U.S. military advantage. As the Post's Max Fisher detailed then, China's hacking frenzy may already make it harder for the U.S. to track Chinese spies.