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Beijing’s Views on Norms in Cyberspace and Cyber Warfare Strategy Pt. 2

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 considered 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.

Cyber-Enabled Public Opinion and Political Warfare

Many American planners are carefully considering scenarios such as China making a play to force the integration of Taiwan, seize the Senkaku Islands from Japan, or seize and project power from any and all claimed reefs and islands in the South China Sea. Under these scenarios we can expect preemptive strikes in the space and network domains in an attempt to “blind” or confuse American and allied understanding and establish a fait accompli. This will, in Chinese thinking, force the National Command Authority to consider a long and difficult campaign in order to eject Chinese forces, and the CCP is placing a bet that American decision makers will choose to reach a political accommodation that recognizes the new “facts on the ground” rather than risk a wider military and economic confrontation.

The role of public opinion warfare may be an integral component of future crisis and conflict in Asia. Well in advance of any potential confrontation, Chinese writing emphasizes the role of “political warfare” and “public opinion warfare” as an offensive deterrence strategy. China will seek to actively shape American, allied, and world opinion to legitimize any military action the CCP deems necessary. We might see cyber-enabled means to “incessantly disseminate false and confused information to the enemy side … through elaborate planning [in peacetime], and [thereby] interfere with and disrupt the enemy side’s perception, thinking, willpower and judgment, so that it will generate erroneous determination and measures.”1 China may try to leverage large populations of Chinese nationals and those of Chinese heritage living outside China as a way to influence other countries and generate new narratives that promote the PRC’s position. Consider, for example, how Chinese social media campaigns led to the boycotts of bananas from the Philippines when it seized Scarborough Reef, or similar campaigns against Japanese-made cars during its ongoing territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands. Most recently, Lotte Duty Free, a South Korean company, suffered distributed denial-of-service attacks from Chinese IP servers – almost certainly a response to South Korea’s recent decision to host the THAAD missile defense system.

It is also critical to recognize China’s understanding and leverage of the American political, information, and economic system. Over decades, China has intertwined its interests and money with American universities, research institutes, corporate institutions, media and entertainment, political lobbying, and special interest organizations. This has had the effect of co-opting a number of institutions and elite opinion makers who view any competition or conflict with China as, at best, detrimental to American interests, and at worst, as a hopeless cause, some going so far as to suggest that it is better for the U.S. to recognize Chinese primacy and hegemony, at least in Asia, if not worldwide. Either way, China will maximize attempts to use cyber-enabled means to shape American and world understanding so as to paint China as the “victim” in any scenario, being “forced” into action by American or Western “interference” or “provocation.”

What can the U.S. do to Enhance Network Resilience?

One of the most important ways that network resiliency can be addressed is by fundamentally changing the intellectual and conceptual approach to critical networks. Richard Harknett, the former scholar-in-residence at U.S. Cyber Command, has suggested a better approach. In a recent issue of the Journal of Information Warfare, he points out that cyberspace is not a deterrence space, but an offense-persistent environment. By that he means that it is an inherently active, iterative, and adaptive domain. Norms are not established by seeking to impose an understood order (such as at Bretton Woods) or through a “doctrine of restraint,” but rather through the regular and constant interactions between states and other actors.  Defense and resiliency are possible in this space, but attrition is not. Conflict here cannot be contained to “areas of hostility” or “military exclusion zones.” No steady state can exist here—every defense is a new opportunity for offense, and every offense generates a new defense.2

Second, the policy and legal approach to network resiliency must shift from a law enforcement paradigm to a national security paradigm. This paradigm is important because it affects the framework under which operations are conducted. The emphasis becomes one of active defense, adaptation, identification of vulnerabilities and systemic redundancy and resilience. A national security approach would also be better suited for mobilizing a whole-of-nation response in which the government, industry, and the population are engaged as active participants in network defense and resiliency. Important to this is the development of partnership mechanisms and professional networking that permit rapid sharing of information at the lowest level possible. Major telecommunications firms, which provide the infrastructure backbone of critical networks, require timely, actionable information in order to respond to malicious threats. Engagement with the private sector must be conducted in the same way they engage with each other – by developing personal trust and providing actionable information.

Network hardening must be coupled with the capabilities needed to rapidly reconstitute critical networks and the resiliency to fight through network attack. This includes the development of alternative command, control, and communication capabilities. In this regard, the military and government can look to industries such as online retail, online streaming, and online financial networks (among others) that operate under constant attack on an hourly basis while proving capable of providing on-demand service to customers without interruption. Some lessons might be learned here.    

Third, new operational concepts must emphasize persistent engagement over static defense. The United States must have the capacity to contest and counter the cyber capabilities of its adversaries and the intelligence capacity to anticipate vulnerabilities so we move away from a reactive approach to cyber incidents and instead position ourselves to find security through retaining the initiative across the spectrum of resiliency and active defensive and offensive cyber operations.

Congressional Action and Implementing a Whole-of-Government Approach

There are five “big hammers” that Congress and the federal government have at their disposal to effect large changes – these are known as the “Rishikof of Big 5” after Harvey Rishikof, Chairman of the Standing Committee on Law and National Security for the American Bar Association. These “hammers” include the tax code and budget, the regulatory code, insurance premiums, litigation, and international treaties. A comprehensive, whole-of-nation response to the challenge China represents to the American-led international system will require a mixture of these “big hammers.” No one change or alteration in Department of Defense policy toward cyberspace operations will have nearly the impact as these “hammers.”3

The tax code and budget, coupled with regulation, can be structured to incentivize network resiliency and security by default (cyber security built into software and hardware as a priority standard), not only among key critical infrastructure industries, but among the population as a whole to include the telecommunication Internet border gateways, small-to-medium sized Internet service providers, and information technology suppliers. Since the federal government, Defense Department, and Homeland Security rely largely on private industry and third-party suppliers for communications and information technology, this would have the attendant effect of improving the systems used by those supporting national security and homeland defense. The key question then is: how can Congress incentivize network resiliency and security standards, to include protecting the supply chain, most especially for those in industry who provide goods and services to the government?

If the tax code, budget, and regulation might provide some incentive (“carrots”), so too can they provide “sticks.” Litigation and insurance premiums can also provide similar effects, both to incentivize standards and practices and discourage poor cyber hygiene and lax network security practices. Again, Congress must balance the “carrots” and “sticks” within a national security framework.

Congress might also address law and policy which permits adversary states to leverage the American system to our detriment. Today, American universities and research institutions are training China’s future leaders in information technology, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, computer science, cryptology, directed energy and quantum mechanics. Most of these students will likely return to China to put their services to work for the Chinese government and military, designing systems to defeat us. American companies hire and train Chinese technology engineers, and have established research institutes in China.4 The American taxpayer is helping fund the growth and development of China’s military and strategic cyber forces as well as growth in China’s information technology industry.

Related specifically to the Department of Defense, Congress should work with the Department to identify ways in which the services man, train, and equip cyber mission forces. It will have to provide new tools that the services can leverage to identify and recruit talented men and women, and ensure that the nation can benefit long-term by setting up appropriate incentives to retain and promote the best and brightest. It will have to address an acquisition system structured around platforms and long-term programs of record. The current military is one where highly advanced systems have to be made to work with legacy systems and cobbled together with commercial, off-the-shelf technology. This is less than optimal and creates hidden vulnerabilities in these systems, risking cascading mission failure and putting lives in jeopardy.

Finally, Congress, the Department of Defense, and the broader intelligence and homeland security communities can work together to establish a center of excellence for the information and cyber domain that can provide the detailed system-of-systems analysis, analytic tools, and capability development necessary to operate and defend in this space. Such centers have been established in other domains, such as land (e.g., National Geospatial Intelligence Agency), sea (e.g., Office of Naval Intelligence) and air and space (e.g., National Air and Space Intelligence Center).


It is important to understand that this competition is not limited to “DOD versus PLA.” The U.S. must evaluate how it is postured as a nation is whether it is prepared fight and defend its information space, to include critical infrastructure, networks, strategic resources, economic arrangements, and the industries that mold and shape public understanding, attitude, and opinion. It must decide whether defense of the information space and the homeland is a matter of national security or one of law enforcement, because each path is governed by very different approaches to rules, roles, policies, and responses. Policymakers should consider how to best address the need to provide critical indications, warnings, threat detection, as well as the system-of-systems network intelligence required for the U.S. to develop the capabilities necessary to operate in and through cyberspace. For all other domains in which the U.S. operates, there is a lead intelligence agency devoted to that space (Office of Naval Intelligence for the maritime domain, National Air and Space Intelligence Center for the air and space domains, etc.).

It must always be remembered that for China, this is a zero-sum competition – there will be a distinct winner and loser. It intends to be that winner, and it believes that the longer it can mask the true nature of that competition and keep America wedded to its own view of the competition as a positive-sum game, it will enjoy significant leverage within the American-led system and retain strategic advantage. China is pursuing successfully, so far, a very clever strategy of working through the system the U.S. built in order to supplant it – and much of it is happening openly and in full view. This strategy can be countered in many ways, but first the U.S. must recognize its approach and decide to act.

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: jbebber@gmail.com. These views are his alone and do not necessarily represent any U.S. government department or agency.

1. Deal 2014.

2. Richard Harknett and Emily Goldman (2016) “The Search for Cyber Fundamentals.” Journal of Information Warfare. Vol. 15 No. 2.

3. Harvey Rishikof (2017) Personal communication, April 21.

4. See: https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2013-03-28/chinese-hacking-is-made-in-the-u-s-a-

Featured Image: Nokia Security Center server room (Photo: Nokia)

Beijing’s Views on Norms in Cyberspace and Cyber Warfare Strategy Pt. 1

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: jbebber@gmail.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

7.  Barry D. Watts (2014) “Countering Enemy Informationized Operations in Peace and War.” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments

8. Timothy L. Thomas (2013) “China’s Cyber Incursions.” Foreign Military Studies Office

9. See: http://www.atimes.com/article/chinas-evolving-cyber-warfare-strategies/

10. See: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2017-03/01/c_136094371.htm

11. See: https://www.csis.org/analysis/made-china-2025

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)

Electronic Warfare’s Place in Distributed Lethality: Congressional Testimony

The following testimony published on Information Dissemination, and is shared with the author’s permission.

By Jon Solomon

Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee

Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces

Prepared Statement of Jonathan F. Solomon

Senior Systems and Technology Analyst, Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc.

December 9th, 2015

The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and are presented in his personal capacity on his own initiative. They do not reflect the official positions of Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. and to the author’s knowledge do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. Department of Defense, any U.S. armed service, or any other U.S. Government agency. These views have not been coordinated with, and are not offered in the interest of, Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. or any of its customers.

Thank you Chairman Forbes and Ranking Member Courtney and all the members of the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee for granting me the honor of testifying today and to submit this written statement for the record.

I am a former U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer (SWO), and served two Division Officer tours in destroyers while on active duty from 2000-2004. My two billets were perhaps the most tactically-intensive ones available to a junior SWO: Anti-Submarine Warfare Officer and AEGIS Fire Control Officer. As the young officer responsible for overseeing the maintenance and operation of my destroyers’ principal combat systems, I obtained an unparalleled foundational education in the tactics and technologies of modern naval warfare. In particular, I gained a fine appreciation for the difficulties of interpreting and then optimally acting upon the dynamic and often ambiguous “situational pictures” that were produced by the sensors I “owned.” I can attest to the fact that Clausewitz’s concepts of “fog” and “friction” remain alive and well in the 21st Century in spite of, and sometimes exacerbated by, our technological advancements.

My civilian job of the past eleven years at Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. has been to provide programmatic and systems engineering support to various surface combat system acquisition programs within the portfolio of the Navy’s Program Executive Officer for Integrated Warfare Systems (PEO IWS). This work has provided me an opportunity to participate, however peripherally, in the development of some of the surface Navy’s future combat systems technologies. It has also enriched my understanding of the technical principles and considerations that affect combat systems performance; this is no small thing considering that I am not an engineer by education.

In recent years, and with the generous support and encouragement of Mr. Bryan McGrath, I’ve taken up a hobby of writing articles that connect my academic background in maritime strategy, naval history, naval technology, and deterrence theory with my professional experiences. One of my favorite topics concerns the challenges and opportunities surrounding the potential uses of electronic warfare in modern maritime operations. It’s a subject that I first encountered while on active duty, and later explored in great detail during my Masters thesis investigation of how advanced wide-area oceanic surveillance-reconnaissance-targeting systems were countered during the Cold War, and might be countered in the future.

Electronic warfare receives remarkably little attention in the ongoing debates over future operating concepts and the like. Granted, classification serves as a barrier with respect to specific capabilities and systems. But electronic warfare’s basic technical principles and effects are and have always been unclassified. I believe that much of the present unfamiliarity concerning electronic warfare stems from the fact that it’s been almost a quarter century since U.S. naval forces last had to be prepared to operate under conditions in which victory—not to mention survival—in battle hinged upon achieving temporary localized mastery of the electromagnetic spectrum over the adversary.

America’s chief strategic competitors intimately understand the importance of electronic warfare to fighting at sea. Soviet Cold War-era tactics for anti-ship attacks heavily leveraged what they termed “radio-electronic combat,” and there’s plenty of open source evidence available to suggest that this remains true in today’s Russian military as well.[i] The Chinese are no different with respect to how they conceive of fighting under “informatized conditions.”[ii] In a conflict against either of these two great powers, U.S. maritime forces’ sensors and communications pathways would assuredly be subjected to intense disruption, denial, and deception via jamming or other related tactics. Likewise, ill-disciplined electromagnetic transmissions by U.S. maritime forces in a combat zone might very well prove suicidal in that they could provide an adversary a bullseye for aiming its long-range weapons.

To their credit, the Navy’s seniormost leadership have gone to great lengths to stress the importance of electronic warfare in recent years, most notably in the new Maritime Strategy. They have even launched a new concept they call electromagnetic maneuver warfare, which appears geared towards exactly the kinds of capabilities I am about to outline. It is therefore quite likely that major elements of the U.S. Navy’s future surface warfare vision, Distributed Lethality, will take electronic warfare considerations into account. I would suggest that Distributed Lethality’s developers do so in three areas in particular: Command and Control (C2) doctrine, force-wide communications methods, and over-the-horizon targeting and counter-targeting measures.

First and foremost, Distributed Lethality’s C2 approach absolutely must be rooted in the doctrinal philosophy of “mission command.” Such doctrine entails a higher-echelon commander, whether he or she is the commander of a large maritime battleforce or the commander of a Surface Action Group (SAG) consisting of just a few warships, providing subordinate ship or group commanders with an outline of his or her intentions for how a mission is to be executed, then delegating extensive tactical decision-making authority to them to get the job done. This would be very different than the  Navy’s C2 culture of the past few decades in which higher-echelon commanders often strove to use a “common tactical picture” to exercise direct real-time control, sometimes from a considerable distance, over subordinate groups and ships. Such direct control will not be possible in contested areas in which communications using the electromagnetic spectrum are—unless concealed using some means—readily exploitable by an electronic warfare-savvy adversary. Perhaps the adversary might use noise or deceptive jamming, deceptive emissions, or decoy forces to confuse or manipulate the “common picture.” Or perhaps the adversary might attack the communications pathways directly with the aim of severing the voice and data connections between commanders and subordinates. An adept adversary might even use a unit or flagship’s insufficiently concealed radio frequency emissions to vector attacks. It should be clear, then, that the embrace of mission command doctrine by the Navy’s senior-most leadership on down to the deckplate level will be critical to U.S. Navy surface forces’ operational effectiveness if not survival in future high-end naval combat.

Let me now address the question of why a surface force must be able to retain some degree of voice and data communications even when operating deep within a contested zone. As I alluded earlier, I consider it highly counterproductive if not outright dangerous for a higher-echelon commander to attempt to exercise direct tactical control over subordinate assets in the field under opposed electromagnetic conditions. But that doesn’t mean that the subordinate assets should not share their sensor pictures with each other, or that those assets should not be able to spontaneously collaborate with each other as a battle unfolds, or that higher-echelon commanders should not be able to issue mission intentions and operational or tactical situation updates—or even exercise a veto over subordinates’ tactical decisions in extreme cases. A ship or an aircraft can, after all, only “see” on its own what is within the line of sight of its onboard sensors. If one ship or aircraft within some group detects a target of opportunity or an inbound threat, that information cannot be exploited to its fullest if the ship or aircraft in contact cannot pass what it knows to its partners in a timely manner with requisite details. In an age where large salvos of anti-ship missiles can cover hundreds—and in a few cases thousands—of miles in the tens of minutes, where actionable detections of “archers” and “arrows” can be extremely fleeting, and where only minutes may separate the moments in which each side first detects the other, the side that can best build and then act upon a tactical picture is, per legendary naval tactical theorist Wayne Hughes, the one most likely to fire first effectively and thus prevail.[iii]

This requires the use of varying forms of voice and data networking as tailored to specific tactical or operational C2purposes. A real-time tactical picture is often needed for coordinating defenses against an enemy attack. A very close to real-time tactical picture may be sufficient for coordinating attacks against adversary forces. Non-real time communications may be entirely adequate for a higher-echelon commander to convey mission guidance to subordinates.

But how to conceal these communications, or at least drastically lower the risk that they might be intercepted and exploited by an adversary? The most secure form of communications against electronic warfare is obviously human courier, and while this was used by the U.S. Navy on a number of occasions during the Cold War to promote security in the dissemination of multi-day operational and tactical plans, it is simply not practicable in the heat of an ongoing tactical engagement. Visible-band and infrared pathways present other options, as demonstrated by the varying forms of “flashing light” communications practiced over the centuries. For instance, a 21st Century flashing light that is based upon laser technologies would have the added advantage of being highly directional, as its power would be concentrated in a very narrow beam that an adversary would have to be very lucky to be in the right place at the right time to intercept. That said, visible-band and infrared systems’ effective ranges are fairly limited to begin with when used directly between ships, and even more so in inclement weather. This may be fine if a tactical situation allows for a SAG’s units to be operating in close proximity. However, if unit dispersal will often be the rule in contested zones in order to reduce the risk that an adversary’s discovery of one U.S. warship quickly results in detection of the rest of the SAG, then visible-band and infrared pathways can only offer partial solutions. A broader portfolio of communications options is consequently necessary.

It is commonly believed that the execution of strict Emissions Control (EMCON) in a combat zone in order to avoid detection (or pathway exploitation) by an adversary means that U.S. Navy warships would not be able to use any form of radiofrequency communications. This is not the case. Lower-frequency radios such as those that operate in the (awkwardly titled) High, Very High, and Ultra High Frequency (HF, VHF, and UHF) bands are very vulnerable because their transmission beams tend to be very wide. The wider a transmission beam, the greater the volume through which the beam will propagate, and in turn the greater the opportunity for an adversary’s signals intelligence collectors to be in the right place at the right time. In order to make lower-frequency radio communications highly-directional and thereby difficult for an adversary to intercept, a ship’s transmitting antennas would have to be far larger than is practical. At the Super High Frequency (SHF) band and above, though, transmission beamwidth using a practically-sized antenna becomes increasingly narrow and thus more difficult to intercept. This is why the Cold War-era U.S. Navy designed its Hawklink line-of-sight datalink connecting surface combatants and the SH-60B helicopter to use SHF; the latter could continually provide sonarbuoy, radar, or electronic support measures data to the former—and thereby serve as an anti-submarine “pouncer” or an anti-ship scout—with a relatively low risk of the signals being detected or exploited. In theory, the surface Navy might develop a portfolio of highly-directional line-of-sight communications systems that operate at SHF or Extremely High Frequency (EHF)/Millimeter-wave (MMW) bands in order to retain an all-weather voice and data communications capability even during strict EMCON. The Navy might also develop high-band communications packages that could be carried by manned or unmanned aircraft, and especially those that could be embarked aboard surface combatants, so that surface units could communicate securely over long-distances via these “middlemen.” Shipboard and airframe “real estate” for antennas is generally quite limited, though, so the tradeoff for establishing highly-directional communications may well be reduced overall communications “bandwidth” compared to what is possible when also using available communications systems that aren’t as directional. Nevertheless, this could be quite practicable in a doctrinal culture that embraces mission command and the spontaneous local tactical collaboration of ships and aircraft in a SAG.

High-directionality also means that a single antenna can only communicate with one other ship or aircraft at a time—and it must know where that partner is so that it can point its beam precisely. If a transmission is meant for receipt by other ships or aircraft, it must either be relayed via one or more “middleman” assets’ directional links to those units or it must be broadcast to them using less-directional pathways. Broadcast is perfectly acceptable as a one-way transmissions method if the broadcaster is either located in a relatively secure and defensible area or alternatively is relatively expendable.  An example of the former might be an airborne early warning aircraft protected by fighters or surface combatants broadcasting its radar picture to friendly forces (and performing as a local C2 post as well) using less-directional lower-frequency communications. An example of the latter might be Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) launchable by SAG ships to serve as communications broadcast nodes; a ship could uplink to the UAS using a highly-directional pathway and the UAS could then rebroadcast the data within a localized footprint. Higher-echelon commanders located in a battlespace’s rearward areas might also use broadcast to provide selected theater- and national-level sensor data, updated mission guidance, or other updated situational information to forward SAGs. By not responding to the broadcast, or by only responding to it via highly-directional pathways, receiving units in SAGs would gain important situational information while denying the adversary an easy means of locating them.

Low Probability of Intercept (LPI) radiofrequency communications techniques provide surface forces an additional tool that can be used at any frequency band, directional or not. By disguising waveforms to appear to be ambient radiofrequency noise or by using reduced transmission power levels and durations, an adversary’s signals intelligence apparatus might not be able to detect an LPI transmission even if it is positioned to do so. I would caution, though, that any given LPI “trick” might not have much operational longetivity. Signal processing technologies available on the global market may well reach a point, if they haven’t already, where a “trick” works only a handful of times—or maybe just once—and thereafter is recognized by an adversary. Many LPI techniques accordingly should be husbanded for use only when necessary in a crisis or wartime, and there should be a large enough “arsenal” of them to enable protracted campaigning.

Finally, I want to briefly discuss the importance of providing our surface force with an actionable over-the-horizon targeting picture while denying the same to adversaries. The U.S. Navy is clearly at a deficit relative to its competitors regarding anti-ship missile range. This is thankfully changing regardless of whether we’re talking about the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), a Tomahawk-derived system, or other possible solutions.

It should be noted, though, that a weapon’s range on its own is not a sufficient measure of its utility. This is especially important when comparing our arsenal to those possessed by potential adversaries. A weapon cannot be evaluated outside the context of the surveillance and reconnaissance apparatus that supports its employment.

In one of my earlier published works, I set up the following example regarding effective first strike/salvo range at the opening of a conflict:

Optimal first-strike range is not necessarily the same as the maximum physical reach of the longest-ranged weapon system effective against a given target type (i.e., the combined range of the firing platform and the weapon it carries). Rather, it is defined by trade-offs in surveillance and reconnaissance effectiveness…This means that a potential adversary with a weapon system that can reach distance D from the homeland’s border but can achieve timely and high-confidence peacetime cueing or targeting only within a radius of 0.75D has an optimal first-strike range of 0.75D…This does not reduce the dangers faced by the defender at distance D but does offer more flexibility in using force-level doctrine, posture, plans, and capabilities to manage risks.[iv]

Effective striking range is reduced further once a war breaks out and the belligerents take off their gloves with respect to each others’ surveillance and reconnaissance systems. The qualities and quantities of a force’s sensors, and the architecture and counter-detectability of the data pathways the force uses to relay its sensors’ “pictures” to “consumers” matter just as much as the range of the force’s weapons.[v] Under intense electronic warfare opposition, they arguably matter even more.

For a “shooter” to optimally employ long-range anti-ship weaponry, it must know with an acceptable degree of confidence that it is shooting at a valid and desirable target. Advanced weapons inventories, after all, are finite. It can take considerable time for a warship to travel from a combat zone to a rearward area where it can rearm; this adds considerable complexities to a SAG maintaining a high combat operational tempo. Nor are many advanced weapons quickly producible, and in fact it is far from clear that the stockpiles of some of these weapons could be replenished within the timespan of anything other than a protracted war. This places a heavy premium on not wasting scarce weapons against low-value targets or empty waterspace. As a result, in most cases over-the-horizon targeting requires more than just the detection of some contact out at sea using long-range radar, sonar, or signals collection and direction-finding systems. It requires being able to classify the contact with some confidence: for example, whether it is a commercial tanker or an aircraft carrier, a fishing boat or a frigate, a destroyer or a decoy. An electronic warfare-savvy defender can do much to make an attacker’s job of contact classification extraordinarily difficult in the absence of visual-range confirmation of what the longer-range sensors are “seeing.”

A U.S. Navy SAG would therefore benefit greatly from being able to embark or otherwise access low observable unmanned systems that can serve as over-the-horizon scouts. These scouts could be used not only for reconnaissance, but also for contact confirmation. They could report their findings back to a SAG via the highly-directional pathways I discussed earlier, perhaps via “middlemen” if needed.

Likewise, a U.S. Navy SAG would need to be able to degrade or deceive an adversary’s surveillance and reconnaissance efforts. There are plenty of non-technological options: speed and maneuver, clever use of weather for concealment, dispersal, and deceptive feints or demonstrations by other forces that distract from a “main effort” SAG’s thrust. Technological options employed by a SAG might include EMCON and deceptive emissions against the adversary’s signals intelligence collectors, and noise or deceptive jamming against the adversary’s active sensors. During the Cold War, the U.S. Navy developed some very advanced (and anecdotally effective) shipboard deception systems to fulfill these tasks against Soviet sensors. Unmanned systems might be particularly attractive candidates for performing offboard deception tasks and for parrying an adversary’s own scouts as well.

If deception is to be successful, a SAG must possess a high-confidence understanding of—and be able to exercise agile control over—its emissions. It must also possess a comprehensive picture of the ambient electromagnetic environment in its area of operations, partly so that it can blend in as best as possible, and partly to uncover the adversary’s own transient LPI emissions. This will place a premium on being able to network and fuse inputs from widely-dispersed shipboard and offboard signals collection sensors. Some of these sensors will be “organic” to a SAG, and some may need to be “inorganically” provided by other Navy, Joint, or Allied forces. Some will be manned, and other will likely be unmanned. This will also place a premium on developing advanced signal processing and emissions correlation capabilities.

We can begin to see, then, the kinds of operational and tactical possibilities such capabilities and competencies might provide U.S. Navy SAGs. A SAG might employ various deception and concealment measures to penetrate into the outer or middle sections of a hotly contested zone, perform some operational task(s) of up to several days duration, and then retire. Other naval or Joint forces might be further used to conduct deception and concealment actions that distract the adversary’s surveillance-reconnaissance resources (and maybe decision-makers’ attentions) from the area in which the SAG is operating, or perhaps from the SAG’s actions themselves, during key periods. And still other naval, Joint, and Allied forces might conduct a wide-ranging campaign of physical and electromagnetic attacks to temporarily disrupt if not permanently roll back the adversary’s surveillance-reconnaissance apparatus. Such efforts hold the potential of enticing an adversary to waste difficult-to-replace advanced weapons against “phantoms,” or perhaps distracting or confusing him to such an extent that he attacks ineffectively or not at all.

The tools and tactics I’ve outlined most definitely will not serve as “silver bullets” that shield our forces from painful losses. And there will always be some degree of risk and uncertainty involved in the use of these measures; it will be up to our force commanders to decide when conditions seem right for their use in support of a particular thrust. These measures should consequently be viewed as force-multipliers that grant us much better odds of perforating an adversary’s oceanic surveillance and reconnaissance systems temporarily and locally if used smartly, and thus better odds of operational and strategic successes.

With that, I look forward to your questions and the discussion that will follow. Thank you.

Jon Solomon is a Senior Systems and Technology Analyst at Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. in Alexandria, VA. He can be reached at jfsolo107@gmail.com. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and are presented in his personal capacity on his own initiative. They do not reflect the official positions of Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. and to the author’s knowledge do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. Department of Defense, any U.S. armed service, or any other U.S. Government agency. These views have not been coordinated with, and are not offered in the interest of, Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. or any of its customers.

[i] For example, see the sources referenced in my post “Advanced Russian Electronic Warfare Capabilities.” Information Dissemination blog, 16 September 2015,http://www.informationdissemination.net/2015/09/advanced-russian-electronic-warfare.html

[ii] For examples, see 1. John Costello. “Chinese Views on the Information “Center of Gravity”: Space, Cyber and Electronic Warfare.” Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Vol. 15, No. 8, 16 April 2015,http://www.jamestown.org/programs/chinabrief/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=43796&cHash=c0f286b0d4f15adfcf9817a93ae46363#.Vl4aL00o7cs; 2. “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015.” (Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 07 April 2015), 33, 38.

[iii] CAPT Wayne P. Hughes Jr, USN (Ret). Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, 2nd ed. (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2000), 40-44.

[iv] Jonathan F. Solomon. “Maritime Deception and Concealment: Concepts for Defeating Wide-Area Oceanic Surveillance-Reconnaissance-Strike Networks.” Naval War College Review 66, No. 4 (Autumn 2013): 113-114.

[v] See my posts 1. “21st Century Maritime Operations Under Cyber-Electromagnetic Opposition, Part II.” Information Dissemination blog, 22 October 2014, http://www.informationdissemination.net/2014/10/21st-century-maritime-operations-under_22.html; and 2. “21st Century Maritime Operations Under Cyber-Electromagnetic Opposition, Part III.” Information Dissemination blog, 23 October 2014,http://www.informationdissemination.net/2014/10/21st-century-maritime-operations-under_23.html

Featured Image: Persian Gulf (Feb. 5, 2007) – Air Traffic Controller 1st Class Otto Delacruz identifies an air contact to Air Traffic Controller 1st Class Brent Watson standing watch in the ship’s helicopter direction center aboard USS Boxer (LHD 4). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Joshua Valcarcel)

The Strategic Support Force: China’s Information Warfare Service

This piece was originally published by the Jamestown Foundation. It is republished here with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By John Costello

Gao Jin (高津) is the PLASSF’s Commander. Note that he was promoted to major general in June 2006 and to lieutenant general occurred in July 2013. (Xinhua)

On December 31, 2015, Xi Jinping introduced the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF; 火箭军), Strategic Support Force (PLASSF; 战略支援部队), and Army Leadership Organ. The move came just within the Central Military Commission’s deadline to complete the bulk of reforms by the end of the year. Most media coverage has focused on the Rocket Force, whose reorganization amounts to a promotion of the PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) to the status of a service on the same level of the PLA Army, Navy, and Air Force. However, by far the most interesting and unexpected development was the creation of the SSF.

According to official sources, the Strategic Support Force will form the core of China’s information warfare force, which is central to China’s “active defense” strategic concept. This is an evolution, not a departure from, China’s evolving military strategy. It is a culmination of years of technological advancement and institutional change. In the context of ongoing reforms, the creation of the SSF may be one of the most important changes yet. Consolidating and restructuring China’s information forces is a key measure to enable a number of other state goals of reform, including reducing the power of the army, implementing joint operations, and increasing emphasis on high-tech forces.

The Strategic Support Force in Chinese Media

Top Chinese leadership, including President Xi Jinping and Ministry of Defense spokesman Yang Yujun have not provided significant details about the operational characteristics of the SSF. Xi has described the SSF as a “new-type combat force to maintain national security and an important growth point of the PLA’s combat capabilities” (MOD, January 1).

On January 14, the SSF’s newly-appointed commander, Gao Jin (高津) said that the SSF will raise an information umbrella(信息伞) for the military and will act as an important factor in integrating military services and systems, noting that it will provide the entire military with accurate, effective, and reliable information support and strategic support assurance (准确高效可靠的信息支撑和战略支援保障) (CSSN, January 14). [1]

Senior Chinese military experts have been quick to comment on the SSF, and their interviews form some of the best and most authoritative insights into the role the new force will play in the Chinese military. For instance, on January 16th, the Global Times quoted Song Zhongping (宋忠平), a former PLASAF officer and a professor at the PLARF’s Equipment Research Academy, who described SSF as as a “fifth service” and, contrary to official reports, states it is not a “military branch” (兵种) but rather should be seen as an independent military service (军种) in its own right. [2] He continues by stating that it will be composed of three separate forces or force-types: space troops (天军), cyber troops (网军), and electronic warfare forces (电子战部队). The cyber force would be composed of “hackers focusing on attack and defense,” the space forces would “focus on reconnaissance and navigation satellites,” and the electronic warfare force would focus on “jamming and disrupting enemy radar and communications.” According to Song, this would allow the PLA to “meet the challenges of not only traditional warfare but also of new warfare centered on new technology” (Global Times, January 16).

By far the most authoritative description of the Strategic Support Force comes from People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo (尹卓). As a member of both the PLAN Expert Advisory Committee for Cybersecurity and Informatization (海军网络安全和信息化专家委员会) and the All-Military Cybersecurity and Informatization Expert Advisory Committee (全军网络安全和信息化专家委员会, MCIEAC) formed in May 2015, Yin is in the exact sort of position to have first-hand knowledge of the SSF, if not a direct role in its creation.

In an interview published by official media on January 5th, 2016, Yin stated that its main mission will be to enable battlefield operations by ensuring the military can “maintain local advantages in the aerospace, space, cyber, and electromagnetic battlefields.” Specifically, the SSF’s missions will include target tracking and reconnaissance, daily operation of satellite navigation, operating Beidou satellites, managing space-based reconnaissance assets, and attack and defense in the cyber and electromagnetic spaces” and will be “deciding factors in [the PLA’s] ability to attain victory in future wars” (China Military News, January 5).

Yin also foresees the SSF playing a greater role in protecting and defending civilian infrastructure than the PLA has in the past:

“[The SSF] will play an important role in China’s socialist construction. Additionally, China is facing a lot of hackers on the internet which are engaging in illegal activities, for example, conducting cyber attacks against government facilities, military facilities, and major civilian facilities. This requires that we protect them with appropriate defense. The SSF will play an important role in protecting the country’s financial security and the security of people’s daily lives” (China Military News, January 5).

Yang Yujun, MND spokesman, also suggested that civilian-military integration will form a portion of the SSF’s mission, but stopped short of clarifying whether this meant the force will have a heavy civilian component or will be involved in defending civilian infrastructure, or both (CNTV, January 2).

Yin noted that the SSF will embody the PLA’s vision of real joint operations. In Yin’s view, military operations cannot be divorced from “electronic space,” a conceptual fusion of the electromagnetic and cyber domains. The SSF will integrate “reconnaissance, early warning, communications, command, control, navigation, digitalized ocean, digitalized land, etc. and will provide strong support for joint operations for each military service branch.” Indeed, this view was also echoed by Shao Yongling (邵永灵), a PLARF Senior Colonel who is currently a professor at the PLA’s Command College in Wuhan. She suggested that the SSF was created to centralize each branch of the PLA’s combat support units, where previously each service had their own, resulting in “overlapping functions and repeat investment.” Consolidating these responsibilities in a central force would allow the military to “reduce redundancies, better integrate, and improve joint operational capabilities” (China Military News, January 5).

Taken together, these sources suggest that at its most basic, the SSF will comprise forces in the space, cyber, and electromagnetic domains. Specifically, sources indicate the SSF will most likely be responsible for all aspects of information in warfare, including intelligence, technical reconnaissance, cyber attack/defense, electronic warfare, and aspects of information technology and management.

Force Composition

Rear Admiral Yin’s comments in particular suggest that at a minimum the SSF will draw from forces previously under the General Staff Department’s (GSD) subordinate organs, to include portions of the First Department (1PLA, operations department), Second Department (2PLA, intelligence department), Third Department (3PLA, technical reconnaissance department), Fourth Department (4PLA, electronic countermeasure and radar department), and Informatization Department (communications).

The “Joint Staff Headquarters Department” (JSD) under the Central Military Commission will likely incorporate the 1PLA’s command and control, recruitment, planning, and administrative bureaus. Information support organs like the meteorology and hydrology bureau, survey and mapping bureau, and targeting bureau would move to the SSF.

The GSD’s intelligence department, the 2PLA will likely move to the SSF, although there is some question as to whether it will maintain all aspects of its clandestine intelligence mission, or this will be moved to a separate unit. The Aerospace Reconnaissance Bureau (ARB), responsible for the GSD’s overhead intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance mission will most likely form the center of the SSF’s space corps. The 2PLA’s second bureau, responsible for tactical reconnaissance, will also move to the SSF. This will include one of its primary missions: operating China’s long-range unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).[3]

The SSF will unify China’s cyber mission by reducing the institutional barriers separating computer network attack, espionage, and defense, which have been “stove-piped” and developed as three separate disciplines within the PLA. The 3PLA’s technical reconnaissance and cyber espionage units will likely move, including the national network of infamous technical reconnaissance bureau’s (TRB), the most famous of which is Unit 61398. The 4PLA’s electronic countermeasures mission will likely form the core of a future electronic warfare force under the SSF, and the its secondary mission of computer network attack (CNA) will also likely also move under the SSF.

Finally, the entirety of the Informatization Department will likely move to the SSF. This will unify its mission, which has expanding over the years to include near all aspects of the support side of informatization, including communications, information management, network administration, computer network defense (CND), and satellite downlink.

Drawing the bulk of the SSF from former GSD organs and subordinate units is not only remarkably practical, but it is also mutually reinforcing with other reforms. Firstly, it reduces the power and influence of the Army by removing its most strategic capabilities. Previously the PLA Army was split into two echelons, its GSD-level headquarters departments (部门) and units (部队) and Military Region-level (MR; 军区) operational units. GSD units did not serve in combat or traditional operational roles, yet constituted some of China’s most advanced “new-type” capabilities: information management, space forces, cyber espionage, cyber-attack, advanced electronic warfare, and intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance. The creation of the Army Leadership Organ effectively split the Army along these lines, with lower-echelon forces forming the PLA Ground Forces and the higher-echelon units forming the Strategic Support Force.

Secondly, separating these capabilities into a separate SSF allows the PLA Army to concentrate on land defense and combat. Nearly all personnel staffing the supposedly joint-force GSD units were Army personnel and by-and-large these units were considered Army units, despite serving as the de facto joint strategic support units for the entire PLA military. Giving the SSF its own administrative organs and personnel allows the PLA Army to concentrate solely on the business of ground combat, land defense, and fulfilling its intended roles in the context of China’s national defense strategy.

Finally and most importantly, separating the second, third, fourth, and “fifth” departments—as the Informatization Department is sometimes called—into their own service branch allows them to be leveraged to a greater degree for Navy Air Force, and Rocket Force missions. More than anything, it allows them to focus on force-building and integrating these capabilities across each service-branch, thereby enabling a long-sought “joint-force” capable of winning wars.

In many ways, taking GSD-level departments, bureaus, and units and centralizing them into the Strategic Support Force is making official what has long been a reality. GSD-level components have nearly always operated independently from regional Group Army units. Separating them into a separate service is less of an institutional change and more of an administrative paper-shuffle.

Integrated Information Warfare

The Strategic Support Force will form the core of China’s information warfare force, which is central to China’s strategy of pre-emptive attack and asymmetric warfare. China’s new military reforms seek to synthesize military preparations into a “combined wartime and peacetime military footing.” These “strategic presets” seek to put China’s military into an advantageous position at the outset of war in order to launch a preemptive attack or quickly respond to aggression. [4] This allows China to offset its disadvantages in technology and equipment through preparation and planning, particularly against a high-tech opponent—generally a by-word for the United States in PLA strategic literature.

These presets require careful selection of targets so that a first salvo of hard-kill and soft-kill measures can completely cripple an enemy’s operational “system of systems,” or his ability to use information technology to conduct operations. Achieving this information dominance is necessary to achieve air and sea dominance, or the “three dominances.” [5] A PLA Textbook, The Science of Military Strategy, (SMS) specifically cites space, cyber, and electronic warfare means working together as strategic weapons to achieve these ends, to “paralyze enemy operational system of systems” and “sabotage enemy’s war command system of systems.” [6] This includes launching space and cyber-attacks against political, economic, and civilian targets as a deterrent. The Strategic Support Force will undoubtedly play a central role as the information warfare component of China’s warfare strategy, and will be the “tip of the spear” in its war-plans and strategic disposition.

Remaining Questions

Despite what can be culled and answered from official sources and expert commentary, significant questions remain regarding the structure of Strategic Support Force and the roles it will play. For one, it is unclear how the Strategic Support Force will incorporate civilian elements into its ranks. Mentioned in 2015’s DWP and the more recent reform guidelines, civilian-military integration is a priority, but Chinese official sources have stopped short in describing how these forces will be incorporated into military in the new order (MOD, May 26, 2015). Previously, the General Staff Department research institutes, known as the “GSD RI’s,” acted as epicenters of civilian technical talent for strategic military capabilities. If the Strategic Support Force is primarily composed of former GSD units, then these research institutes will be ready-made fusion-points for civilian-military integration, and may take on a greater role in both operations and acquisition. Even so, the civilian piece is likely to prove vital, as they will undoubtedly serve as the backbone of China’s cyber capability.

Secondly, it is unknown specifically what forces will compose the Strategic Support Force, or the full extent of its mission. When official sources say “new-type” forces, they could mean a wide range of different things, and the term can include special warfare, intelligence operations, cyber warfare, or space. At a minimum, a consensus has emerged that the force will incorporate space, cyber, and electronic warfare, but the full extent of what this means is unclear. It is also unknown, for instance, if the space mission will include space launch facilities, or whether those will remain under the CMC Equipment Development Department, a rechristened General Armament Department. Where psychological operations will fall in the new order is also up for debate. Some sources have said that it will be incorporated into the SSF while others have left it out entirely.

Finally, although it is clear that the SSF will act as a service, it remains unclear if the CMC will also treat it as an operational entity, or how the CMC will operationalize forces that are under its administrative purview. It is unlikely that the military theaters will have operational authority over strategic-level cyber units, electronic warfare units, or space assets. These capabilities will likely be commanded directly by the CMC. This logic flies in the face of the new system, which requires that services focus on force construction rather than operations and warfare. The solution may be that the SSF, as well as the PLARF, act as both services and “functional” commands for their respective missions.


Ultimately, the strategic support force needs to be understood in the broader context of the reforms responsible for its creation. On one hand, the reforms are practical, intending to usher China’s military forces into the modern era and transform them into a force capable of waging and winning “informatized local wars.” On the other hand, the reforms are politically motivated, intending to reassert party leadership to transform the PLA into a more reliable, effective political instrument.

The Strategic Support Force, if administered correctly, will help solve many of the PLA’s problems that have prevented it from effectively implementing joint operations and information warfare. The creation of an entire military service dedicated to information warfare reaffirms China’s focus on the importance of information in its strategic concepts, but it also reveals the Central Military Commission’s desire to assert more control over these forces as political instruments. With the CMC solidly at the helm, information warfare will likely be leveraged more strategically and will be seen in all aspects of PLA operations both in peace and in war. China is committing itself completely to information warfare, foreign nations should take note and act accordingly.

John Costello is Congressional Innovation Fellow for New American Foundation and a former Research Analyst at Defense Group Inc. He was a member of the U.S. Navy and a DOD Analyst. He specializes in information warfare, electronic warfare and non-kinetic counter-space issues.


1. A Chinese-media report on Gao Jin’s military service assignments can be found at <http://news.sina.com.cn/c/sz/2016-01-01/doc-ifxneept3519173.shtml>. Gao Jin’s role as commander of the SSF is noteworthy in two respects: One, he is a career Second Artillery officer, so his new role muddies the waters a bit in understanding whether the SSF will be a force composed of Army personnel but treated administratively separate from the Army—not unlike the former PLASAF-PLA Army relationship—or will be composed of personnel from various services and treated administratively separate from all forces. Secondly and more important to this discussion, before his new post as SSF commander, Gao Jin was head of the highly-influential Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) which besides being the PLA’s de facto think-tank (along with the National Defense University), is responsible for putting out the Science of Strategy, a wide-reaching consensus document that both captures and guides PLA strategic thinking at the national level. The most recent edition published in 2013 was released under his tenure as commandant of AMS and many of the ideas from that edition have found their way into the 2015 defense white paper, December’s guide on military reforms, and many of the changes made to China’s national defense establishment. His new role could be seen as CMC-endorsement of SMS’s views on China’s strategic thought.

2. Song’s description of the SSF contradicts official-media descriptions of the service, which had suggested that the service will occupy a similar echelon to that of the PLASAF before it was promoted to full military service status equal to the other branches.

3. Ian M. Easton and L.C. Russell Hsiao, “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Project: Organizational Capacities and Operational Capabilities,” 2049 Institute, March 11, 2013. p. 14.

4. The Science of Military Strategy [战略学], 3rd ed., Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013. p. 320.

5. Ibid. p. 165.

6. Ibid. p. 164.

Featured Image: Soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division prepare to provide Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen with a demonstration of their capablities during a visit to the unit in China on July 12, 2011. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)