CHINA has admitted for the first time that it had poured massive investment into the formation of a 30-strong commando unit of cyberwarriors - a team supposedly trained to protect the People's Liberation Army from outside assault on its networks.
While the unit, known as the "Blue Army", is nominally defensive, the revelation is likely to confirm the worst fears of governments across the globe who already suspect that their systems and secrets may come under regular and co-ordinated Chinese cyberattack.
In a chilling reminder of China's potential cyberwarfare capabilities, a former PLA general told The Times that the unit had been drawn from an exceptionally deep talent pool.
"It is just like ping-pong. We have more people playing it, so we are very good at it," he said.
The Blue Army, which comprises a few dozen of the best talents China has to offer, are understood to have been drawn from various channels, including existing PLA soldiers, officers, college students and assorted "members of society".
Confirmation of the existence of the Blue Army came during a rare briefing by the Chinese Defence Ministry whose spokesman, Geng Yansheng, said that the unit's purpose was to improve the security of the country's military forces.
Organised under the Guangdong Military Command, the Blue Army is understood to have existed formally for about two years, but had been discussed within the PLA for more than a decade. A report in the official PLA newspaper said that "tens of millions" had been spent on the country's first senior-level military training network.
Xu Guangyu, a senior researcher of the government-backed China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, described the existence of the Blue Army as a great step forward for the PLA and said that China could not afford to allow "blank spaces" to open up in state and military security.
"The internet has no boundaries, so we can't say which country or organisation will be our enemy and who will attack us. The Blue Army's main target is self-defence. We won't initiate an attack on anyone," he said.
In a comment that many foreign governments will argue dramatically understates the true balance of cyberwar capabilities, Mr Xu added: "I don't think our Blue Army's skills are too backward compared to those of other countries."
In a recent test of its powers, reported the PLA Daily, the Blue Army was thrust into a simulated cyberbattle against an attacking force four times its size and left to defend China's military networks against a bombardment of virus attacks, massive barrages of junk mail and stealth missions into the inner sanctums of military planning to steal secret information on troop deployment. The Blue Army, predictably, triumphed.
Asked whether the unit had been set up specifically to mount cyberattacks on foreign countries, Mr Geng said that internet security had become an international issue with an impact on the military field of battle. China, he added, was also a victim and its abilities to protect itself from cyberattack were very weak.
Even without the PLA's acknowledgement of the existence of the Blue Army, sources throughout the internet security industry have long believed that Chinese-based hackers are the single largest source of worldwide cyberattacks.
A report on cyberespionage last year by the US anti-virus software maker Symantec found that more than a quarter of all attempts to steal sensitive corporate data originated in China and that the eastern city of Shaoxing was the single largest generator of attacks. Western intelligence sources believe that many Chinese-originated attacks are carried out by hackers with links to the PLA or the Chinese Government.