Operation Beebus: The Exfiltration Of U.S. Drone Technology And Its Implications


In this research paper, the cyber operation “Beebus” will be analyzed by using strategic, technical and (military-) operational perspectives. A conceptual model will be applied in order to operationalize military cyber operations like operation Beebus in relation to fighting power. Furthermore, operation Beebus will serve as a case study to highlight various perspectives and academic debates on cyberwarfare. Finally, this research paper will present an evaluation on how this operation may contribute to a government’s cyber capabilities and the effectiveness of operation Beebus, and suggests countermeasures.

Keywords: cyberwar, cybersecurity, cyber operations


“China’s slow, incremental march toward a cutting-edge air force quietly continues”.[1] The development of drone technology serves two purposes for China. First, as a lucrative export product. Second, as a defense capability to deter adversaries in the South China Sea which is of strategic importance. It is believed that China has been stealing sensitive U.S. drone technology information from at least 20 defense contractors for more than two years.[2] In 2013, an U.S. network security company FireEye, Inc. has discovered this Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) campaign consistently targeting companies in the aerospace and defense industries related to drone technology.[3] This research paper will analyze operation Beebus and is structured in three sections. The first section will provide a comprehensive analysis of the operation based on the conceptual model for operationalizing military cyber operations in relation to fighting power by Ducheine and van Haaster (2014). The second section will introduce various perspectives and academic debates regarding military cyber operations like operation Beebus and cyberwar in general. The third section will provide an evaluation how a military cyber operation like Beebus may contribute to a nation-state’s cyber capabilities and how it threatens a nation-state’s interest and suggests countermeasures.

Section 1: Analyzing Operation Beebus

In this section operation Beebus will be analyzed based on the conceptual model for cyber operations in relation to fighting power. In order to understand the context of cyber operations like operation Beebus, the following definition of cyber war is adopted (Shakarian, Shakarian, & Ruef, 2013, p. 2): “Cyber war is an extension of policy by actions taken in cyber space by state or non-state actors that either constitute a serious threat to a nation’s security or are conducted in response to a perceived threat against a nation’s security”. By clarifying the definition of cyber war it is emphasized in this research paper that cyber war is different from cyber security in general because of the reference to a serious threat to a nation’s security. This implies an explicit role for the armed forces. A malware on an individual user’s laptop to steal credit card details or the infiltration of a corporate network to steal intellectual property can be a nuisance but is not part of cyber warfare. However, when the individual is targeted because he or she is a high ranking government official or when the corporate network is a closed network containing classified information it can be a matter of national security indeed. Operation Beebus specifically targeted individual and companies with access to drone technology in order to boost the drones capability development of a certain country. The operation is considered an APT campaign that lasted at least two years. APT processes require a high degree of covertness over a long period of time with the use of sophisticated techniques, an external command control server for continuously monitoring and extracting data, and the direct human involvement in orchestrating the attack (Musa, 2014). Furthermore, in this research paper military cyber operations are defined as (Ducheine & van Haaster, 2014, p. 313): “The employment of cyber capabilities with the prime purpose of achieving military objectives in or by the use of cyberspace”. The following conceptual model to analyze military cyber operations related to fighting power will be used (see figure 1).


Figure 1: Fighting Power and Cyber Operations. Adapted from Ducheine & van Haaster (2014).

Intelligence suggests that a group called ‘Comment Crew’ is behind the operation and it is believed to be a state-sponsored hacker group.[4] The fact that drone technology is the targeted asset aligns with the recent signs of the growing ambitions of China’s drone capability development program. However, it cannot be proven for sure that this operation has been ordered by the Chinese government. This problem is related to the question of attribution. Nevertheless, by analyzing operation Beebus it will seem likely that this was a state-sponsored (military) cyber operation by the Chinese government. A security analyst has to identify basically three things when examining a cyber operation; origin, structure, and purpose (Shakarian, Shakarian, & Ruef, 2013, p. 4). Throughout this research paper the attribution question will be answered, although not definitely. However, another problem arises because of the question of deception. Whenever an attribution is assumed, the possibility of an adversary using deception, the “deception hypothesis” must be considered. Thus, the likelihood that several pieces of intelligence are accurate and feasible (attribution), it can be established whether the deception thesis should be applied by asking the right questions such as “Does organization Z have the capability conduct operation X”, “Does organization Z have a reason to conduct operation X”, “How likely is it that organization Z would have left intelligence Y indicating its responsibilities?”, “Is there another organization Q that has the capability to conduct operation X?” and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, analyzing a cyber operation and its findings cannot provide real hard evidence but this is out of the scope of this research paper.

Operation Beebus is believed to be conducted by the “Comment Crew” and related to the “Shanghai Group” which is allegedly part of China’s People Liberation Army (PLA). The Comment Crew is known for placing encrypted HTML comments embedded in benign websites, transforming them into malicious websites. During operation Beebus, companies in the aerospace and defence industries, and academia have been consistently targeted for gathering research design and manufacturing details of the latest U.S. drone technologies. Furthermore, the malware used was socially engineered and constructed in documents and whitepapers related to South Asian military affairs and international relations. If it is assumed that the Chinese government is in some way involved in operation Beebus it could be argued that the following instruments and components of power have been used. Betz & Stevens (2011, pp. 45-53) propose four distinct forms of cyber-power which are; compulsory, institutional, structural, and productive. Hence; “Cyber-power is therefore the manifestation of power in cyberspace rather than a new or different form of power” (Ibid, p 44).

This research paper identifies the direct and indirect use of all four distinct forms of cyber-power. Namely, compulsory power has been applied through coercive action and control over the behavior humans and computers in order to steal drone technology which could potentially be used against U.S. national security interests. Second, institutional power is used to indirectly control an actor through the mediation of formal and informal institutions. China’s efforts to approve a Russian-drafted agreement in the international system, in 2009, based on certain rules and norms on behavior in cyberspace by nation-states in favor of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) members is an example of a coordinated institutional power instrument. [5] [6] Third, structural power has been applied via operation Beebus because it has the potential to disrupt the status quo in the international system where currently the U.S. is considered as the global superpower. China might seek to disrupt this status quo by gathering and collecting crucial U.S. drone technology for its own interests. Specializing in conducting covert military cyber operations which are difficult to attribute does seem as a powerful instrument to disrupt the status quo. Fourth, productive power is used through a mediated discourse by and enacted in cyberspace to facilitate and constrain social action. China released reports and statements countering U.S. claims with their own charges of cyber-espionage conducted by the U.S.[7] By doing so, China might strive to persuade non friendly nation states towards the U.S. and tip the mediated discourse balance in favor of China.

It is difficult to assign operation Beebus into a single threat category in relation to national security mandates. It is also important to understand that national cyber security is not one single subject area. The following five distinct mandates are mentioned by Klimburg and Mirtl (2012) which are: Military cyberactivities; counter-cybercrime; intelligence and counter-intelligence; critical infrastructure protection and national crisis management; and cyberdiplomacy and internet governance. Operation Beebus has elements of social engineering e.g. the ‘weaponized’ pdf files with specific titles to spur interest of a target. Also, there is the stealing of intellectual property and espionage. The operational Technique, Tactic and Procedure (TTP) applied in operation Beebus is spear-phishing. Socially engineered emails with pdf attachments in the form of documents and reports by well-known companies such as Boeing and KPMG and white papers with titles such as “Pakistan’s Indigenous UAV Industry” were sent to persons of interest. The technical TTP applied is modifying pdf files using Ghostscript in order to infect users with malware using a well-document vulnerability known as DLL search order hijacking. Upon opening the pdf file a DLL (trojan) is dropped in the C:\\Windows Directory and will persist on the device. Then, it sends back an initial GET request to a Command and Control (C&C) server which is traced back to somewhere in China. The trojan collects information from the computer and sends back encrypted information in order to avoid detection. However, this C&C server used a TCP Proxy tool in order to disguise either the true source or destination of the stolen information traffic. Thus, it is clear to see that the attribution problem arises and that the deception thesis needs to be taken into account. Nevertheless, intelligence suggests that the Chinese government is somehow directly or indirectly involved based on targeted objects and persons, and the operational and technical TTPs.

But is operation Beebus part of military cyberactivities? In this research paper it is argued that it is, because in or through cyberspace military objectives are being achieved. Namely, stealing drone technology in order to boost the drone capability development program. Second, information could be used to research and develop TTP on how to hack the drones of potential enemies via reverse engineering and finding the exploits in a Cyber-Physical System (CPS) like drones. Finally, the effect of such an operation increases distrust and forces countries like the U.S. and China to engage in cyberdiplomacy. Thus, the components related to fighting power which are affected by this operation are physical, moral, and conceptual (Ducheine & van Haaster, 2014, p. 305). First, the equipment and the confidentiality, integrity and confidentiality has been compromised. China has procured and manufactured a drone, Wing Loong, that is very similar to the U.S. drone, Predator, but produces and sells its drone for much cheaper than the U.S. version. Second, the moral component of fighting power has been affected because this operation has raised doubts on what the Chinese government knows about U.S. manufactured drones and what they can do with this information. Third, the conceptual component has been affected that should lead to certain training and education for drone operators in order to raise awareness about the possibility that drones contain vulnerabilities and can be exploited by a willing and capable adversary. But is operation Beebus an act of cyberwar? When a cyber operation constitutes a significant threat to a nation’s security, it can be considered an act of cyberwar. In the next section several perspectives and academic debates on cyberwar will be taken into consideration and applied to operation Beebus.

Section 2: Perspectives and Debates on Cyberwar

In this section various perspectives and academic debates on cyberwar will be introduced. Cyberwar is a contested and loaded term (Klimburg & Mirtl, 2012, p. 15). It is argued by Klimburg and Mirtl that a cyberattack constitutes ‘battlefield cyberwarfare’ if military cybercapabilities are used only within a clearly defined tactical military mission. In the case of operation Beebus, the effects are not limited to the operational-tactical environment. Furthermore, the emphasis of military cyberactivities can lie on ‘strategic cyberwarfare’ that is the ability to strike at the heart of a nation (Ibid, p 16). Thus, operation Beebus would not fall under the national cybersecurity mandate of military cyberactivities but more likely under mandate of intelligence and counter-intelligence. Although distinguishing the act of espionage from military activities is not uncontroversial. More fittingly, discussing cyberwarfare is controversial and creating separate mandates with separate roles and responsibilities might not be the best way to properly deal with cyber operations like Beebus.

In 2010, a Chatham House report “On Cyberwarfare” described cyberspace as ‘terra nullius’ and beyond the reach of a mature political discourse (Cornish, Livingstone, Clementa, & Yorke). Therefore, cyberspace is an attractive place for nation-states and non-state actors to pursue certain goals. The Chinese government is believed to have embraced cybercapabilities in order to target sensitive information from a military superior U.S and fits within the doctrine of ‘using information superiority to achieve greater victories at a smaller cost’ (Cornish, Livingstone, Clementa, & Yorke, 2010, p. 8). It would also be wise to realize that the strategic and military thinking in China is not based on writings of the soldier-philosopher Clausewitz or general Jomini like most advanced Western nations. The Chinese cyber strategy offers room for cyber espionage campaigns like Beebus (Shakarian, Shakarian, & Ruef, 2013, pp. 116-117). In the game of Go, the equivalent for the game of chess, it not the goal to seek the destruction of pawns in order to capture the king but the goal is to conquer parts of the game space. Furthermore, one of China’s strategic objective is to maximize the strategic configuration of power, called “Shi” which refers to the ability to ensuring a victory over a superior force and on setting favorable conditions for when a conflict does arise (Ibid). Hence, operation Beebus fits within the doctrine of using information superiority, the strategy of conquering parts of cyberspace, and setting favorable conditions for a future conflict.

Furthermore, setting the battlefield for a game of Go and establishing Shi in order to conduct military cyber operations is backed up with the ‘three warfares’ (Shakarian, Shakarian, & Ruef, 2013, p. 119). These include media which is used to support the righteous cause of China. Second, the legal justification of this cause and third, psychological warfare to aide friendly and attack the enemy’s morale. Even though intelligence suggests that the Chinese government is responsible for operation Beebus, it would be wise to consider the possibility of a Reflexive Control (RC) military operation. For Russia, RC is one the primary methods to interfere with decision-making process of an enemy commander (Thomas, 2004, p. 237). RC is defined as a means of conveying an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action (Ibid). The following describes how computer technology creates new opportunities to RC: “In present conditions, there is a need to act not only against people but also against technical reconnaissance assets and especially weapons guidance systems, which are impassive in assessing what is occurring and do not perceive to what a person reacts” (Thomas, 2004, p. 247). Through RC, Russia could be applying a form a ‘perception’ management through the control of cyber operations like Beebus in order to distract, paralyze, deceit or provoke the U.S. government in engaging a long and costly cyber war.

Regarding the likelihood of cyber warfare, Rid (2012, p. 6) argues that cyber war does not take place in the present and that it is highly unlikely that cyber war will occur in the future. Rid considers cyber-attacks merely as sophisticated versions of subversion, espionage, and sabotage and not as an act of war because they are non-lethal. Correspondingly, Libicki (2012, p. 335) argues that the notion of seeing cyberspace as a warfighting domain that needs to be dominated just like the other warfighting domains is misleading and pernicious because superiority cannot be achieved in cyberspace. In contrast, Stone (2013, p. 107) concludes that cyber-attacks could constitute acts of war if it becomes clear what is meant by force and violence, and their relationship with lethality (i.e. kinetic impact). In addition, Zetter (2015) contends that we are already at cyber war and observes that more than 20 countries like the US, China, UK, Israel, North Korea, Iran and Russia have built cyber offensive capabilities in the past few years.

Section 3: Evaluating the Effects and Suggested Countermeasures

This research paper concludes with an evaluation how a military cyber operation like Beebus might contribute to a nation-state’s cyber capabilities and how it threatens a nation-state’s interest. For the sake of arguments, it is now assumed that the Chinese government is responsible for operation Beebus. But is stealing drone technology cyber war? It is clear to see that drone technology relates to a nation’s security. It would be reasonable to categorize this operation as part of the intelligence and military cyberactivities national cyber security mandates. According to Applegate (2015, p. 1) there is a: “credible capability to use cyber attacks to achieve kinetic effects”. The main targets for kinetic cyber attacks CPS. A CPS is the integration of computer systems with physical processes such as drones. And like other information technologies, drones were designed with little security. Drones are prone to attacks as they are equipped with sensors to process data and this exposes them to vulnerabilities (Rani, Modares, & Sriram, 2015).

Considering the game of Go, establishing Shi, the possibility of RC and the exploits to CPS like drones, operation Beebus seems less of an isolated cyberespionage campaign but indeed part of a coherent cyber security doctrine and strategy against a nation’s security with intelligence suggesting that the Chinese government is in some way involved. Does this mean that operation Beebus is battle in a cyberwar between China and the U.S? Let us turn back to the definitions used in this research paper. “Cyber war is an extension of policy by actions taken in cyber space by state or non-state actors that either constitute a serious threat to a nation’s security or are conducted in response to a perceived threat against a nation’s security” (Shakarian, Shakarian, & Ruef, 2013, p. 2). Operation Beebus can now be considered as an extension of the Chinese doctrine and strategy against U.S. national security interests. Also, the definition of military cyber operations can be applied to Beebus; “The employment of cyber capabilities with the prime purpose of achieving military objectives in or by the use of cyberspace” (Ducheine & van Haaster, 2014, p. 313). At first glance, the operation might fall under the ‘artificial’ national security mandate of intelligence and counter-intelligence. However, due to the targeted specific technology related to U.S. drones the operation can also be considered as part of military cyberactivities. It all depends on which perspective is applied when interpreting a cyber operation.

In its most basic form operation Beebus is a spear-phishing campaign designed to be highly personalized therefore hitting the human weak spots (Parmar, 2012). Employees of drone technology companies regularly open and reply to emails on the move. The cause of this is the proliferation of mobile devices. To counter the threats from operations like Beebus, organizations need to increase awareness of spear-phishing and educate on how to avoid cyber-fraud (Ibid, p 10). Blacklisting certain Internet Protocol (IP) addresses could be a solution but easily bypassed. Therefore, a layered protection strategy, or ‘defence in depth’ should be applied. Instead of blacklisting, IT managers should whitelist exactly which programs should be permitted to run and does not depend on updates from anti-virus programs. Also, a method for restoring systems to their original setting should be made available at every computer and mobile device containing sensitive information.


China’s drone capability development program has been steadily growing the past five years. Intelligence suggests that the Chinese government is responsible for operation Beebus although this paper does not provide any hard evidence. The operation is an APT campaign that lasted for at least two years. In this research paper is it argued that cyber war is an extension of policy by action taken in cyber space by state or non-state actors that constitutes a serious threat to another nation’s security. A conceptual model for analyzing military cyber operations related to fighting power has been used to interpret the operation. The problem of attribution and the possibility of deception has been introduced and it is stated that there cannot be any real hard evidence for the claim that China is indeed responsible. Nevertheless, forms of cyber-power have been found which are applied via operation Beebus. Drone technology is stolen, indirect control over U.S. is applied, the status quo is indirectly challenged if China ought to be the number one drone manufacturer in the next ten years, and China released reports and statements countering U.S. claims with their own charges of cyber-espionage conducted by the U.S. government. Operation Beebus can be considered as part of the intelligence and counter-intelligence, and the military cyberactivities national cyber security mandate because of its relation to U.S. national security interests. The operational and technical TTP’s of the operation indicates direct human orchestration. Because cyberspace is still beyond the reach of a mature political discourse, it is an attractive place for pursuing military goals for rising powers such as China to challenge U.S. hegemony. The Chinese cyber strategy and doctrine provides sufficient possibilities to engage the U.S. via cyber operations like Beebus. Operation Beebus fits within the doctrine of using information superiority, the strategy of conquering parts of cyberspace, and setting favorable conditions for a future conflict. Stealing drone technology alone does not directly indicate serious threats to a nation’s security. Therefore, the credible capability to use cyber attacks to achieve kinetic effects is also mentioned. Drones are CPS prone to attacks and exploitation of vulnerabilities. It is thus wise to not only look at the operation itself but also to consider its context within international security and the power struggle between nation-states. A layered protection strategy, or ‘defence in depth’ could be a good countermeasure against spear-phishing operations like Beebus, this includes blacklisting, whitelisting applications and systems restoring methods at the touch of a button on any device containing sensitive information.


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[1] Groll, Elias. 2015. “China’s Drone Program Keeps Stealthily Inching Forward”. Foreign Policy. Accessed 24-02-2016 via https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/13/chinas_drone_program_keeps_stealthily_inching_forward/.

[2] Wong, Edward. 2013. “Hackng U.S. Secrets, China Pushes for Drones.” The New York Times. Accessed 24-02-2016 via http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/21/world/asia/hacking-us-secrets-china-pushes-for-drones.html?_r=0.

[3] FireEye, Inc. 2013. “Operation Beebus”. FireEye. Accessed 24-02-2016 via https://www.fireeye.com/blog/threat-research/2013/02/operation-beebus.html.

[4] FireEye, Inc. 2013. “The Mutter Backdoor: Operation Beebus With New Targets”. FireEye. Accessed on 24-2-2016 via https://www.fireeye.com/blog/threat-research/2013/04/the-mutter-backdoor-operation-beebus-with-new-targets.html.

[5] The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is considered as the Asian political-military alliance equivalence to NATO.

[6] Gjelten, Tom. 2010. “Shadow Wars: Debating Cyber ‘’Disarmament’”. World Affairs. Accessed on 24-2-2016 via http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/shadow-wars-debating-cyber-disarmament

[7] Kan, Michael. 2014. “China counter US claims with own charges of cyber-espionage”. Computerworld. Accessed on 24-2-2016 via http://www.computerworld.com/article/2489555/cyberwarfare/china-counters-us-claims-with-own-charges-of-cyber-espionage.html