By LCDR Jake Bebber USN
The following is a two-part series looking at PRC use of cyberspace operations in pursuit of its national strategies and the establishment of the Strategic Support Force. Part 1 considers the centrality of information operations and information war to the PRC’s approach toward its current struggle against the U.S. Part 2 looks at the PRC’s use of international norms and institutions in cyberspace, and possible U.S. responses.
A recent article noted a marked shift in Chinese strategy a few short years ago which is only now being noticed. Newsweek author Jeff Stein wrote a passing reference to a CCP Politburo debate under the presidency of Hu Jintao in 2012 in which “Beijing’s leading economics and financial officials argued that China should avoid further antagonizing the United States, its top trading partner. But Beijing’s intelligence and military officials won the debate with arguments that China had arrived as a superpower and should pursue a more muscular campaign against the U.S.”1
The nature of this competition is slowly taking shape, and it is a much different struggle than the Cold War against the Soviet Union – however, with stakes no less important. This is a geoeconomic and geoinformational struggle. Both U.S. and PRC views on cyber warfare strategy, military cyber doctrine, and relevant norms and capabilities remain in the formative, conceptual, and empirical stages of understanding. There is an ongoing formulation of attempting to understand what cyberspace operations really are. While using similar language, each has different orientations and perspectives on cyberspace and information warfare, including limiting structures, which has led to different behaviors. However, the nature of cyberspace, from technological advancement and change, market shifts, evolving consumer preferences to inevitable compromises, means that while windows of opportunity will emerge, no one side should expect to enjoy permanent advantage. Thus, the term ‘struggle’ to capture the evolving U.S.-PRC competition.
The PRC recognized in the 1990s the centrality of information warfare and network operations to modern conflict. However, it has always understood the information space as blended and interrelated. Information is a strategic resource to be harvested and accumulated, while denied to the adversary. Information warfare supports all elements of comprehensive national power to include political warfare, legal warfare, diplomatic warfare, media warfare, economic warfare, and military warfare. It is critical to recognize that the PRC leverages the American system and its values legally (probably more so than illegally), to constrain the U.S. response, cloud American understanding, and co-opt key American institutions, allies, and assets. In many ways, the PRC approach being waged today is being hidden by their ability to work within and through our open liberal economic and political system, while supplemented with cyber-enabled covert action (such as the OPM hack).
To support their comprehensive campaign, the PRC is reforming and reorganizing the military wing of the Communist Party, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), posturing it to fight and win in the information space. Most notably, it recently established the Strategic Support Force (SSF) as an umbrella entity for electronic, information, and cyber warfare. Critical for U.S. policymakers to understand is how the SSF will be integrated into the larger PLA force, how it will be employed in support of national and military objectives, and how it will be commanded and controlled. While much of this remains unanswered, some general observations can be made.
This reform postures the PLA to conduct “local wars under informationized conditions” in support of its historic mission to “secure dominance” in outer space and the electromagnetic domain. Network (or cyberspace) forces are now alongside electromagnetic, space, and psychological operations forces and better organized to conduct integrated operations jointly with air, land, and sea forces.2
This change presents an enormous challenge to the PLA. The establishment of the SSF disrupts traditional roles, relationships, and processes. It also disrupts power relationships within the PLA and between the PLA and the CCP. It challenges long-held organizational concepts, and is occurring in the midst of other landmark reforms, to include the establishment of new joint theater commands.3 However, if successful, it would improve information flows in support of joint operations and create a command and control organization that can develop standard operating procedures, tactics, techniques, procedures, advanced doctrine, associated training, along with driving research and development toward advanced capabilities.
While questions remain as to the exact composition of the Strategic Support Force, there seems to be some consensus that space, cyber, electronic warfare, and perhaps psychological operations forces will be centralized into a single “information warfare service.” Recent PLA writings indicate that network warfare forces will be charged with network attack and defense, space forces will focus on ISR and navigation, and electronic warfare forces will engage in jamming and disruption of adversary C4ISR. It seems likely that the PRC’s strategic information and intelligence support forces may fall under the new SSF. The PLA’s information warfare strategy calls for its information warfare forces to form into ad hoc “information operations groups” at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels, and the establishment of the SSF will save time and enable better coordination and integration into joint forces. The SSF will be better postured to conduct intelligence preparation of the battlespace, war readiness and comprehensive planning for “information dominance.”4
The establishment of the SSF creates a form of information “defense in depth,” both for the PLA and Chinese society as a whole. The SSF enables the PLA to provide the CCP with “overlapping measures of electronic, psychological, and political deterrents.” It is reasonable to expect that there will be extensive coordination and cooperation among the PRC’s military, internal security, network security, “commercial” enterprises such as Huawei and ZTE, political party organizations, state controlled media both inside and outside China, and perhaps even mobilization of Chinese populations.
Chinese Information Warfare Concepts and Applications
Recent Chinese military writings have stressed the centrality of information to modern war and modern military operations. Paying close attention to the way the West – principally the U.S. – conducted the First Gulf War and operations in Kosovo and the Balkans in the 1990s, the PRC has been aggressively pursuing a modernization and reform program that has culminated in where they are today. Indeed, there is close resemblance to PLA and PRC aspirational writing from the 1990s to today’s force structure.
In many ways, the PLA understanding of modern war reflects the American understanding in so much as both refer to the centrality of information and the need to control the “network domain.” “Informatized War” and “Informatized Operations” occur within a multi-dimensional space – land, sea, air, space and the “network electromagnetic” or what Americans generally understand as “cyberspace.” The U.S. has long held that the control of the network domain provides a significant “first mover advantage,” and the PRC is well on the way toward building the capability for contesting control of the network domain. Its writings consistently hold that the PLA must degrade and destroy the adversary’s information support infrastructure to lessen its ability to respond or retaliate. This is especially necessary for “the weak to defeat the strong,” because most current writing still suggests that the PLA believes itself still inferior to American forces, though this perception is rapidly changing. Regardless, the PRC understanding of modern war supposes a strong incentive for aggressive action in the network domain immediately prior to the onset of hostilities.6 These operations are not restricted geographically, and we should expect to see full-scope network operations worldwide in pursuit of their interests, including in the American homeland.7
There are three components to a strategic first strike in the cyber domain. The first component is network reconnaissance to gain an understanding of critical adversary networks, identifying vulnerabilities, and manipulating adversary perception to obtain strategic advantage. Network forces are then postured to be able to conduct “system sabotage” at a time and place of the PRC’s choosing. When the time is right, such as a prelude to a Taiwan invasion or perhaps the establishment of an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea, the PRC will use system sabotage to render adversary information systems impotent, or to illuminate the adversary’s “strategic cyber geography” in order to establish a form of “offensive cyber deterrence.” The PRC could take action to expose its presence in critical government, military, or civilian networks and perhaps conduct some forms of attack in order to send a “warning shot across the bow” and give national decision-makers reason to pause and incentive to not intervene.8
Indeed, unlike the American perspective, which seeks to use cyberspace operations as a non-kinetic means to dissuade or deter potential adversaries in what Americans like to think of as “Phase 0,” the PLA has increasingly moved toward an operational construct that blends cyberspace operations with kinetic operations, creating a form of “cyber-kinetic strategic interaction.” The goal would be to blind, disrupt, or deceive adversary command and control and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems while almost simultaneously deploying its formidable conventional strike, ballistic missile, and maritime power projection forces. The PLA envisions this operational concept as “integrated network electronic warfare,” described by Michael Raska as the “coordinated use of cyber operations, electronic warfare, space control, and kinetic strikes designed to create ‘blind spots’ in an adversary’s C4ISR systems.”9
The PLA has recently described this as a form of “network swarming attacks” and “multi-directional maneuvering attacks” conducted in all domains – space, cyberspace, ground, air, and sea. The Strategic Support Force has been designed to provide these integrated operations, employing electronic warfare, cyberspace operations, space and counter-space operations, military deception and psychological operations working jointly with long-range precision strike, ballistic missile forces and traditional conventional forces.
Essential to these concepts are China’s ability to achieve dominance over space-based information assets. PRC authors acknowledge this as critical to conducting joint operations and sustaining battlefield initiative. This includes not only the orbiting systems, but ground stations, tracking and telemetry control, and associated data systems. We can expect full-scope operations targeting all elements of America’s space-based information system enterprise.
Important to all of this is the necessity of preparatory operations that take place during “peacetime.” China understands that many of its cyberspace, network, electronic and space warfare capabilities will not be available unless it has gained access to and conducted extensive reconnaissance of key systems and pre-placed capabilities to achieve desired effects. We should expect that the PRC is actively attempting to penetrate and exploit key systems now in order to be able to deliver effects at a later date.
Chinese Understandings of Deterrence and International Law in Cyber Warfare
China recently released the “International Strategy of Cooperation on Cyberspace.”10 Graham Webster at the Yale Law School made some recent observations. First, it emphasizes “internet sovereignty,” which is unsurprising, since the CCP has a vested interest in strictly controlling the information space within China, and between China and the rest of the world. This concept of “internet sovereignty” should best be understood as the primacy of Chinese interests. China would consider threatening information sources outside of the political borders of China as legitimate targets for cyber exploitation and attack. In the minds of the CCP, the governance of cyberspace should recognize the sovereignty of states, so long as the Chinese state’s sovereignty is paramount over the rest of the world’s.
Second, the strategy suggests that “[t]he tendency of militarization and deterrence buildup in cyberspace is not conducive to international security and strategic mutual trust.” This appears to be aimed squarely at the U.S., most likely the result of Edward Snowden’s actions. The U.S. seems to also be the target when the strategy refers to “interference in other countries’ internal affairs by abusing ICT and massive cyber surveillance activities,” and that “no country should pursue cyber hegemony.” Of course, the PRC has been shown to be one of the biggest sources of cyber-enabled intellectual property theft and exploitation, and China’s cyber surveillance and control regimes are legendary in scope. Immediately after decrying the “militarization” of cyberspace, the strategy calls for China to “expedite the development of a cyber force and enhance capabilities … to prevent major crisis, safeguard cyberspace security, and maintain national security and social stability.” These broad, sweeping terms would permit China to later claim that much of its activities that appear to violate its own stated principles in the strategy are indeed legitimate.
The strategy seeks to encourage a move away from multi-stakeholder governance of the Internet to multilateral decision-making among governments, preferably under the United Nations. This would certainly be in China’s interests, as China continues to hold great sway in the U.N., especially among the developing world. After all, China is rapidly expanding its geoeconomic and geoinformational programs, leveraging its state-owned enterprises to provide funding, resources, and informational infrastructure throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. As more countries become dependent on Chinese financing, development, and infrastructure, they will find it harder to oppose or object to governance regimes that favor Chinese interests.
Naturally, the strategy emphasizes domestic initiatives and a commitment to a strong, domestic high-tech industry. This would include the “Made in China 2025” plan, which has received a great deal of attention. The plan seeks to comprehensively upgrade and reform Chinese industry, with an emphasis on information technology.11
When considering deterrence in the Chinese understanding, it is important to remember that China approaches it from a different context than the United States. Jacqueline Deal noted that China’s basic outlook proceeds from the premise that the “natural state of world is one of conflict and competition, and the goal of strategy is to impose order through hierarchy.”12 While Americans understand deterrence as a rational calculation, the Chinese approach emphasizes the conscious manipulation of perceptions.
Indeed, the Chinese term weishe, which translates as “deterrence,” also embodies the idea of “coercion.” We might see examples of this understanding by China’s historic use of “teaching a lesson” to lesser powers. In the 20th Century, Chinese offensives against India and Vietnam – thought by many in the West to be an example of tragic misunderstanding and failed signaling of core interests – might be better thought of as attempts by China to secure its “rightful” place atop the regional hierarchy. It is a form of “lesson teaching” that has long-term deterrent effects down the road.
We can expect therefore that cyberspace would become one means among many that China will use in support of its “Three Warfares” (public opinion, media, legal) concept in support of its larger deterrent or compellence strategies. It will likely be much broader than the use of PLA SSF forces, and could include cyber-enabled economic strategies, financial leverage, and resource withholding.
LCDR Jake Bebber is a cryptologic warfare officer assigned to the staff of Carrier Strike Group 12. He previously served on the staff of U.S. Cyber Command from 2013 – 2017. LCDR Bebber holds a Ph.D. in public policy. He welcomes your comments at: email@example.com. These views are his alone and do not necessarily represent any U.S. government department or agency.
1. Available at: http://www.newsweek.com/cia-chinese-moles-beijing-spies-577442
2. Dean Cheng (2017). Cyber Dragon: Inside China’s Information Warfare and Cyber Operations. Praeger Security International.
3. Cheng 2017.
4. John Costello and Peter Mattis (2016). “Electronic Warfare and the Renaissance of Chinese Information Operations.” in China’s Evolving Military Strategy (Joe McReynolds, editor). The Jamestown Foundation.
6. Joe McReynolds, et. Al. (2015) “TERMINE ELECTRON: Chinese Military Computer Network Warfare Theory and Practice.” Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis
8. Timothy L. Thomas (2013) “China’s Cyber Incursions.” Foreign Military Studies Office
12. Jacqueline N. Deal (2014). “Chinese Concepts of Deterrence and their Practical Implications for the United States.” Long Term Strategy Group.
Featured Image: The Center for Nanoscale Materials at the Advanced Photon Source. (Photo: Argonne National Laboratory)