Tag Archives: PLA

Chinese Warplanes: Combat Aircraft and Units of the Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation

Andreas Rupprecht and Tom Cooper. Modern Chinese Warplanes: Combat Aircraft and Units of the Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2012. 256pp. $64.95

By Lieutenant Commander David Barr, USN

Over the past two decades, the term “modernization” has been widely used by foreign affairs experts, military and political leaders, and intelligence analysts to describe the startling rapidity of the Chinese military’s rise from an arguably primitive force to one of the most technologically-advanced militaries in the world. In his article, “China: A Threat or a Challenge: Its Air Power Potential”, Indian Air Marshall RS Bedi describes modernization as “a dynamic process to keep abreast with the latest” (Bedi, p3). By applying lessons learned from its military actions against U.S. forces during the Korean War and observations made during later conflicts such as Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, NATO operations in the Balkans, and Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, the PLA have kept abreast of the significant role of airpower in modern warfare. Accordingly, both the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF) have quickly progressed through this “dynamic process” and have emerged as a force capable of countering American and regional neighbor land- and sea-based airpower, including aircraft carriers, cruise missiles, and long-range bombers. Via informative writing and a litany of glorious, colored and black & white photographs, Modern Chinese Warplanes leads readers along the PLA air forces’ progressive path toward today’s modernized force. Chock full of vivid and informative photographs, readers are immediately transfixed. To invoke a classic adage, if a picture speaks a thousand words, then even a cursory flip through the pages reveals a stunning, photographic summary and leaves the reader eager to investigate the accompanying text.

The first chapter of Modern Chinese Warplanes is dedicated to describing the origins, progressions, and even setbacks of both the PLAAF and the PLANAF, thus providing succinct yet informative context toward understanding how remarkable the modernization of China’s air forces has been. Although the PLAAF and PLANAF were established in 1949 and 1952 respectively, it could be argued that the modernization of today’s force was born from the compelling wake-up call presented to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leadership during the 1991 U.S.-led military operations in Iraq. Using Rupprecht and Cooper’s description, U.S. operations in Iraq “shocked the PLA into the realization that it had to become capable of engaging in high-tech warfare or otherwise face the certainty of falling ever further behind other modern militaries.” This marked a momentous shift in Chinese national military strategy and the subsequent 1993 issuance of the “The Military Strategic Guidelines for the New Period” by the CCP and PLA. Thus, if 1993 can be considered the start of China’s current military modernization period, the mere 24-year rise in military capabilities of the PLA, arguably now on par with the world’s leading military forces, is even more remarkable.

After Chapter 1’s useful historical context, Rupprecht and Cooper use Chapters 2 through 6 to succinctly present the book’s stated objective: to provide “a summary of the Chinese air arms as they are today, what equipment they operate, and how this equipment is organized.” Chapters two and three both describe and illustrate China’s modern combat aircraft, combat support aircraft, and associated armament. Chapter two’s introductory pages aptly describe Chinese aviation nomenclature and unique designations but then seemingly gloss over China’s numerous aircraft manufacturing companies. Admittedly this area is outside the scope of Modern Chinese Warplanes; however, readers seeking additional information regarding Chinese aircraft manufacturing companies would benefit by combining this book with The Chinese Air Force; Evolving Concepts, Roles, and Capabilities by National Defense University Press (Hallion). The remainder of Chapters two and three however, present information that is well-researched and effectively organized into an almost encyclopedic presentation of each aircraft’s unique characteristics, performance parameters, and weaponry. The vibrant pictures and charts are wonderfully placed and provide ample relevance. An especially intriguing inclusion within Chapter 2, especially to military analysts and aircraft enthusiasts, is the sections entitled “Future” at the conclusion of each aircraft’s narrative. These paragraphs provide the reader with tantalizing hints regarding future aircraft developments, variants, and designations – details that would need to be expounded upon in a possible update. Additionally, Chapter four provides a highly-informative explanation of PLA aircraft markings and serial number systems – information neither readily available nor widely understood.

The only thing going against Modern Chinese Warplanes is time, for today the term “modern,” as the book’s title implies, is especially fleeting regarding the modernization of the Chinese military and its air forces. Since the book’s 2012 publication date, further reflected in the 2012 Order of Battle in chapters five and six, numerous changes have occurred within China’s political and military structures that, if the authors and publisher do not address, will quickly render this book irrelevant: In November 2012, Xi Jinping assumed China’s presidency and chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC), quickly embarking on a campaign to reorganize the PLA, including restructuring the existing military regions. This effort was realized in February 2016 as the seven military regions described in Modern Chinese Warplanes were reorganized into five theater commands – a reorganization which also affected the subordinate command structures (Wuthnow). Additionally, in 2013–2014, China initiated substantial dredging and land reclamation projects in the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

These efforts continued, despite international backlash and in the face of a ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague in July 2016 which officially stated that China’s expansive claim to sovereignty over the waters of the South China Sea (SCS) had no legal basis. Today, these projects have resulted in three highly-functional artificial islands which are strategically located in the southern portion of the SCS and are fully capable of hosting Chinese military aircraft (Kyodo). Furthermore and more specifically, the PLA has accelerated its 4th and 5th-generation aircraft and armament development programs; therefore, many of the programs or technologies only hinted at within the pages of Modern Chinese Warplanes such as the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter, Shenyang J-15 aircraft carrier-based fighter, and the Xian Y-20 heavy transport aircraft have rapidly progressed to the point of entering service in the PLAAF and/or PLANAF (Adams).

Finally, the PLA continues to initiate or expand military aviation and armament developmental programs. Modern Chinese Warplanes needs to be updated to further reflect the ongoing advances in PLAAF and PLANAF aviation platforms and technologies such as the Shenyang J-31 “Gyrfalcon”/”Falcon Hawk” stealth fighter (Fisher), the CJ-20 long-range land-attack cruise missile (LACM), and the YJ-12 long-range anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) (Roblin).

In Modern Chinese Warplanes, the authors do not dive deep into foreign affairs or military strategy, nor do they embark on theorizing on how the aircraft are or will be operationally integrated into the PLA – foreign affairs experts, military analysts, and political strategists will find little usefulness here. Readers seeking to expand into air power operational integration would benefit by also reading Chapter five of China’s Near Seas Combat Capabilities by Peter Dutton, Andrew Erickson, and Ryan Martinson (Dutton). However, military analysts, history buffs, and even aircraft model aficionados will discover a wonderful and colorful addition to their collection – as a quick reference or an immersive interlude – likely resulting in many dog-eared pages. For any military enthusiast looking to expand his or her knowledge of modern Chinese aviation, this book is certainly a handy reference; however, it should not stand on its own but rather serve as a springboard toward additional research. If not already in the works, this reader personally hopes the authors and publisher collaborate and embark on revised editions that includes updated information and equally stunning photographs so that the 2012 version of Modern Chinese Warplanes will not be lost to the annals of time but rather, much like the PLA itself, will continue “in a process of sustained reform and modernization.”  

LCDR David Barr is a career intelligence officer and currently within the Directorate for Intelligence and Information Operations for U.S. Pacific Fleet. His opinions do not represent those of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, or the Department of the Navy.


Adams, Eric. “China’s New Fighter Jet Can’t Touch the US Planes It Rips Off”; Wired; 07 NOV 2016. https://www.wired.com/2016/11/china-j-20-fighter-jet/

Bedi, R.S. “China: A Threat or a Challenge:  Its Air Power Potential”; Indian Defense Review; 08 March 2017. http://www.indiandefencereview.com/print/?print_post_id=35227

Dutton, Peter, Andrew S. Erickson, and Ryan Martinson. China’s Near Seas Combat Capabilities. Newport: U.S. Naval War College; China Maritime Studies, 2014.

Fisher, Richard D Jr. “New details emerge on Shenyang FC-31 fifth-generation export fighter”; IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly; 09 NOV 2016. http://www.janes.com/article/65359/new-details-emerge-on-shenyang-fc-31-fifth-generation-export-fighter

Hallion, Richard, P., Roger Cliff, and Phillip C. Saunders. The Chinese Air Force: Evolving Concepts, Roles, and Capabilities. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 2012.

Kyodo News. “China tests 2 more airfields in South China Sea”; posted 14 July 2016. http://news.abs-cbn.com/overseas/07/14/16/china-tests-2-more-airfields-in-south-china-sea

Roblin, Sebastien. “China’s H-6 Bomber: Everything You Want to Know about Beijing’s ‘B-52’ Circling Taiwan”; The National Interest; 18 DEC 2016. http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/chinas-h-6-bomber-everything-you-want-know-about-beijings-b-18772

Rupprecht, Andreas, and Tom Cooper. Modern Chinese Warplanes: Combat Aircraft and Units of the Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2012.

Wuthnow, Joel and Phillip C. Saunders. “Chinese Military Reform in the Age of Xi Jinping: Drivers, Challenges, and Implications”; National Defense University Press; March 2017. http://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/stratperspective/china/ChinaPerspectives-10.pdf?ver=2017-03-21-152018-430

Featured Image: A J-31 stealth fighter (background) of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force lands on a runway after a flying performance at the 10th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, in this November 11, 2014 file photo. (Reuters/Alex Lee)

China’s Quest for Great Power: Ships, Oil, and Foreign Policy

Bernard D. Cole, China’s Quest for Great Power: Ships, Oil, and Foreign Policy. Naval Institute Press, 2016 304pp. $34.95

By John Bardenhagen

China’s Navy is emerging as a force capable of global reach following three decades of focused modernization, a transformation that has been fueled by China’s economic growth. Military analysts and Asia Pacific scholars closely watch China’s naval modernization in order to discern whether and in what ways China’s Navy will pose a threat to the United States and its interests. To understand the trajectory of China’s Navy, one must also examine the trajectory of China’s economy and how its growth fits into China’s overarching foreign policy and the stability of the PRC government. Author Bernard Cole accomplishes this In China’s Quest for Great Power: Ships, Oil, and Foreign Policy.

Reading this book left me with two primary impressions. First, I was impressed with how much it covered. The titles of the book’s chapters highlight the breadth of topics: maritime world, PRC maritime forces, maritime strategy, economy, energy security, foreign policy in the making, and foreign policy in action. Entire books could, and have, been written on each of these individual topics. This is also apparent through a review of the notes and bibliography sections of the book, which, at 75 pages, are nearly a third of the length of the book. Second, I was impressed with how succinctly Cole tackles each subject.

The strength of this book is Cole’s ability to break down such an expansive and complicated topic into neatly crafted subunits. In the Navy, we use the term ‘wave tops’ to describe the highlights of a much more thorough recounting of an event or analytical product. This book is a careful threading of the ‘wave tops’ of recent events, historical context, and Cole’s own analysis of the subject. The sole weakness of this book is that it is never allowed to deeply delve into one specific area. Though succinctness and breadth was the author’s intent and also the source of the book’s strength, the lack of depth makes this book more of a launching point toward further and greater research than a single, comprehensive resource.

For those new to the China’s foreign policy and maritime development, this book will surely be an invaluable resource. As a naval intelligence professional, my early education of the region was primarily focused on military capabilities and largely avoided the topics of economics and foreign policy. Greater context, however, was severely lacking, and such a lack of context lessens the ability to understand the particular drivers behind a foreign military’s actions whenever a significant event occurs. China’s military, like those of other nations across the globe, does not operate in a vacuum. To better understand the Chinese navy we must all broaden our scope to cover other tangential but intertwined areas. Reading this book serves as a good step in that direction.

For those scholars on the subject, the so-called “China Hands,” this book will help readers keep current to the late 2015, early 2016 timeframe with the added benefit of doing it in as few pages as possible. Specifically, Cole’s book incorporates the PRC’s newest leadership statements, defense white papers, and other official documents to bolster his analysis and infer the direction in which China’s Navy is headed. Most prominent of the recently released official documents cited in this book was China’s 2015 Defense White Paper which was used to support Cole’s thesis: China’s pursuit of continued naval expansion is both a priority and directly tied to China’s economic expansion.  Furthermore, Cole argues that China’s economic expansion is directly tied to regime stability, which he uses as a basis for assessing the trajectory of China’s Navy. For Cole, and I personally agree, the direction in which China’s Navy and interests are headed is ever outward and forward.

Cole highlights China’s reference of the United States as its primary security concern in its 2015 military strategy (p.200). While eventual war with China is not a foregone conclusion, the threat of conflict has increased as the balance of power between the United States and China has leveled, making pursuit of greater understanding of China’s Navy, foreign policy, and future growth all the more important. This will become increasingly true as China further expands its global reach and finds itself competing with the United States for control over limited resources essential for growth in both countries.

Lieutenant John A. Bardenhagen III is currently stationed at U.S. Pacific Command’s (PACOM) Joint Intelligence Operations Center (JIOC). He has previously served on the U.S. Seventh and Third Fleet Staffs, at the Chief of Naval Operations-Intelligence Plot, and on the COMPHIBRON FIVE Staff aboard the USS MAKIN ISLAND (LHD-8). He recently graduated in 2016 from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey with a Master of Arts Degree in national security affairs, specializing in Far East Asian regional studies. His opinions do not represent those of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, or Department of the Navy. 

 Featured Image: Chinese nationals living in Cyprus wave Chinese national flags as the Chinese frigate Yancheng comes in to dock at Limassol port, January 4, 2014. (Reuters/Andreas Manolis)

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)