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Pentagon downplays comment on F-35 fighter jet cyber threat

Workers can be seen on the moving line and forward fuselage assembly areas for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Lockheed Martin Corp's facto
Workers can be seen on the moving line and forward fuselage assembly areas for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter at Lockheed Martin Corp's facto

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon on Thursday downplayed a comment by one of its officials that he is not totally confident in the ability of the $396 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, built by Lockheed Martin Corp, to survive a cyber attack.

The Pentagon's F-35 program office issued a statement that the Department of Defense was "fully aware of evolving cyber threats and is taking specific action to counter them for all fielded systems, including F-35."

"The F-35 is no more or less vulnerable to known cyber threats than legacy aircraft were during their initial development and early production," spokesman Joe DellaVedova said when asked about a comment by Christopher Bodgan, the F-35 program manager, to lawmakers on Wednesday.

Bogdan, an Air Force Lieutenant General, told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee that he was "not that confident" about security implemented by the companies that build the plane.

Bogdan said the Pentagon and the international partners recognized the responsibility they had for safeguarding technology on the fifth-generation stealth fighter.

He then added, "I'm a little less confident about industry partners to be quite honest with you ... I would tell you I'm not that confident outside the department."

U.S. military officials and industry executives said on Thursday that government and defense industry networks get probed and attacked each day, but they were unaware of any specific, recent incident involving the loss of data on the F-35 program that could have prompted Bogdan's remark.

During Wednesday's hearing, Lieutenant General Charles Davis, the top uniformed Air Force acquisition official, cited China's recent unveiling of two new fighter planes over a period of 22 months as cause for concern.

Pressed for details by committee members, he said China may have used data from U.S. computer networks to design and build the planes, although he said the Chinese planes' capabilities would probably not measure up to those of the F-35 and the F-22 fighter, also built by Lockheed.

Other concerns have surfaced in recent years. In 2012, a team of Navy cyber experts testing a computerized logistics system being developed for the F-35, was able to break into the system's classified files by entering the unclassified part of the system. That vulnerability has since been addressed.

Lockheed and its partners refuted Bogdan's comments. Lockheed spokesman Michael Rein said the company had made significant investments and progress in countering cyber attacks

"We take this mission very seriously," he said. "We have placed special emphasis on intelligence analysis, characterization and prediction - an intelligence driven response in order to ensure agile response to attack and enhanced resilience of our systems."

Lockheed said it routinely helped customers and suppliers in evaluating and strengthening their cyber defenses.

Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp that builds the engine for the new single-engine, single-seat fighter, also refuted Bogdan's remark.

"We do not discuss details of our cyber security initiatives, but we have a well established strategy in place to protect our intellectual property and company private data, as well as our customer's information, against cyber threats," said spokesman Matthew Bates.

(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Ros Krasny)

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