Workers prepare the launching ceremony of the Russian diesel-electric attack submarine Stary Oskol in 2014. Photo: AFP/Olga Maltseva

Hackers working for Russia are so effective at penetrating the computers of American defense contractors that they can track new US weapons programs from their inception and tap the data to give their own military systems an edge, former US Secretary of the Navy John Lehman reportedly said at a forum on Wednesday.

“Today their cyber is so capable, even though most of the defense industry will not publicly admit it, but they’re right in from the beginning of the program with their cyber capability, so there is almost no lag. They’re not behind us, they’re with us in our [technology development].”

Lehman, who served as navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan, made the comments at a maritime security event hosted by the US Naval Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He was the architect of the 600-ship force mobilized by the US Navy against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Lehman noted at the event that the effective Russian cyber hacks are a continuation of a strategy used by Moscow after World War II of “drafting” their weapons technology off of US designs.

“They designed their fighters to use (US) F/A-18 radar because they knew they’d be able to steal them,” Lehman said.

He cited the example of Russian submarine development over the last several years as another example of how such technology leaked out.

“If you look at their latest submarines, it’s pretty hard to project a real advantage sub-to-sub. [They] copied all of the technology off our submarine quieting, and they’re ahead in some of the offensive capabilities,” he said.

“We have really fallen behind in technology, and we need to get back into that game.”

Lehman said one of the best ways to combat the problem is to create a faster US weapons acquisitions process. He says this will allow US industry and the Pentagon to more quickly bring high-tech systems to the field. Lehman noted that while the U.S. has a 22-year process to get a major weapon system fully operational, Russia and China have about a seven year cycle.

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