updated 2/7/2012 9:47:56 AM ET 2012-02-07T14:47:56

Senior Pentagon officials and others close to the issue say years of delays and spiraling costs associated with a major Department of Defense fighter-jet program are partly due to Chinese cybercriminals who illegally obtained confidential information on the plane's design.

The espionage, according to Aviation Week, stemmed from a previously disclosed 2009 hack into Lockheed Martin's servers, during which hackers from a "foreign intelligence agency" made off with 24,000 confidential files. The F-35 was not the target of the hack, Aviation Week said, but among the stolen files were instructions enabling the attackers to extract sensitive data and become "invisible witnesses to online meetings and technical discussions."

Lockheed Martin's servers were breached again in May of 2011 in the wake of the RSA SecurID compromise, but it is not known if any data related to the F-35 was stolen during that breach.

The DOD's F-35 Lightning II Program, also called the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program, is a stealth fighter jet whose three main variants are designed to perform attack, reconnaissance and defense missions. Lockheed Martin won the contract in 2001 to build the estimated 2,443 fighters for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, according to a Reuters report.

Eight other countries are expected to buy an additional 700 planes, but production has been delayed several times in the past three years. Costs, set originally at about $156 million per plane, have jumped to more than $207 million per plane, coming in at a total cost of around $505 billion.

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Some of the delays have been chalked up to technical malfunctions, but now officials are saying Chinese cybercriminals are to blame for the skyrocketing budget and the fact that the project hasn't gotten off the ground.

"There are both operational and schedule problems with the program related to cyber data thefts," a veteran combat pilot told Aviation Week. "In addition, there are the costs of addressing weaknesses in the original system design and lots of software fixes."

Aviation Week added that Chinese hackers, unbeknownst to U.S. officials, "sat in on what were supposed to have been secure, online program-progress conferences."

With this pilfered F-35 intelligence data, including specifics about the jets and their computer systems, officials say Lockheed Martin has had to continually redesign the fighter planes to address critical vulnerabilitiesthat could be exploited to reduce the efficacy of the jets. The Pentagon is expected to defer production on 179 planes over the next five years to save money.

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