All posts by Jake Bebber

State of War, State of Mind: Reconsidering Mobilization in the Information Age, Pt. 2

By LCDR Robert “Jake” Bebber USN

This article is part two of a two-part piece drawn from a recently completed report by the author that was published by The Journal of Political Risk, and is available in its entirety here

What Must Be Done?

Part one of this article outlined some of the broad challenges facing American policy-makers and defense planners in the coming years. Part two explores the practical and policy implications of what must be done.

Considering these developments outlined in part one, U.S. mobilization efforts should take the following six steps:

  1. Shift the focus of strategic warning to identifying emerging disruptions and strategic latency.
  2. Develop a strategic intelligence capability to monitor and evaluate sources of U.S. power and identify areas of potential comparative advantage.
  3. Institutionalize a “whole of society” approach to peacetime preparedness.
  4. Reframe warfighting posture toward preparing to survive an initial blow, then transition to alternative capabilities that can achieve desired effects. 
  5. Integrate allied and U.S. preparedness efforts, to include research and development, technology sharing, coordinated production, and political resiliency.
  6. Understand and educate the American people on the realities of sustained competition and conflict.

Strategic Latency, Warning, and Disruption Futures

Since the Second World War, the idea of “warning” has largely been linked to surprise military attacks. Pearl Harbor, the invasion of South Korea by North Korea, and September 11, stand out as hallmark examples of the types of surprise attacks that most concern policymakers. During the Cold War, this included not only a nuclear first strike, but also a surprise Soviet attack into Western Europe or a resumption of hostilities on the Korean peninsula. Other warning concerns would be events which might have dramatic impact on the geopolitical landscape, such as coups and revolutions, the outbreak of civil war, the assassination of a world leader, or the outbreak of a war involving a U.S. ally. 

The nature of surprise assumes a level of unpreparedness – catching your adversary unprepared is why surprise is usually sought after. The American intelligence community, while it has many roles and functions, exists foremost to prevent surprise and provide strategic warning. 

Cynthia Grabo describes warning as “an intangible, an abstraction, a theory, a deduction, a perception, a belief. It is the product of reasoning or of logic, a hypothesis whose validity can neither be confirmed nor refuted until it is too late [emphasis added].”1 It should not be confused with current intelligence, nor does it necessarily flow from a mere “compilation of facts” or the result of “majority consensus.” Rather it depends on exhaustive research, and usually the kind of holistic approach that the American intelligence community was not originally designed for.2 There are currently 17 federal agencies and military service components devoted to different collection and analysis emphases, each working independently under a broad umbrella agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). ODNI was established after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, largely in response to the significant failures of the separate intelligence agencies to work together and share information and analytic expertise.

While anticipating a military surprise attack will remain an enduring requirement for the intelligence community, the emerging global trends and adversary campaigns reshaping the strategic environment will likely matter more in the coming decades. However, the current analytic techniques used by intelligence analysts are inadequate to identify these trends and are likely to result in a strategic warning crisis.3

Strategic latency refers to the potential for technologies to fundamentally shift the military and economic balance of power.4 China (and Russia to a lesser extent) leverage dual-use technologies to exploit commercial and supply chain vulnerabilities and hold critical information and economic “choke points.” Supply chain dominance provides control of the underlying infrastructure of the 21st century economy, from undersea cables to satellites. By controlling  the electromagnetic spectrum and supporting supply chains such as media, advertising, entertainment, legal regimes, political lobbying, and public opinion management, China is approaching the point where it can achieve global information superiority, if not dominance. Information control enables population control

The intelligence community’s inability to detect and anticipate latent disruptions results from the organizational structure of the community, the charges of its component organizations, and its analytic tradecraft. The 17 U.S. intelligence agencies that fall under ODNI’s purview are organized under either intelligence disciplines, such as communication intelligence or geospatial intelligence, service warfighting domains (air, land, sea, space), or domestic security and law enforcement functions. Its core responsibility is the fusion of these different disciplines into larger strategic intelligence support to the President and National Security Council.

Today’s intelligence community organization results from two major events: the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., and the intelligence community’s erroneous assessment in 2002-3 of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program. The first represents a failure to detect an impending attack. The second represents a failure to accurately assess the state of an adversary’s capabilities. In both cases, cognitive limitations inherent to dealing with incomplete or ambiguous information led to intelligence and warning failures. Analysts do not approach their trade with a “blank slate,” but start with certain assumptions about foreign capabilities and intentions that have been developed through education, training, and experience. These assumptions form a mindset that influences what the analyst judges to be reliable and relevant. While this is often a strength, it is not error-free.5

However, the intelligence community’s ability to forecast latent disruptions is questionable at best. This places American national security at a severe risk since it directly impacts peacetime strategic competition and mobilization execution in the event of conflict. Yet understanding anticipatory behavior is central to financial asset management firms, and seven of the top ten firms reside in the United States. Before these firms make multi-billion dollar decisions, they perform deep research and analysis, evaluating an immense, diverse array of data sets, from predicting sea level rises to mobile communication use in India. These firms specialize in evaluating risks to capital investment. 

Data sets are available almost instantaneously from a growing “Internet of Things” and ubiquitous sensors that constantly monitor human activity. Programmers use these data sets to build and refine predictive algorithms that drive risk management and investment.  This methodological approach suggests humans telegraph their behavior through technology and investment decisions. This “Techno-Financial” intelligence capability is a critical requirement for better anticipating emerging disruptions.6 It is a multidisciplinary approach integrating behavioral economics, neuroscience, demographics, regulatory, legal, and other sectors. Interconnected technologies and complex networks are treated as living organisms, while investment is the fueling force that can predict future organism behavior.7

Along with a techno-financial intelligence capability, the intelligence community lacks a comprehensive methodology to “understand the ways individuals perceive and respond to various types of information.” It requires a knowledge of how humans communicate with others in groups, and “orient and respond to economic, social and political environments.” To detect these changing patterns in human group behavior, the intelligence community will need massive sets of diverse and cross domain data sets, along with the ability to process this data to yield understanding and prediction.8 Many of these data sets will overlap with techno-financial intelligence, and the two disciplines complement one another.

Intelligence and Investment for the Home Front

Underlying disruptions in the global economy, changing consumer behaviors, and advanced non-kinetic mass disruption attacks have left the American home front vulnerable. In many respects, war in the 21st century will be characterized not only by a lack of “front lines” but also the absence of any sanctuary. Traditional offensive and defensive operations may not apply, and the “battlefield” may be located in far off corners of the globe while simultaneously being fought in corporate boardrooms, small town hall meetings, and even family gatherings.

Mobilization and peacetime preparedness are best informed through a comprehensive program that identifies the sources of American power creation, evaluates changes and coming discontinuities, and conducts predictive analysis. The Department of Defense has been conducting this type of work through agencies such as the Office of Net Assessment and the Defense Science Board, yet for obvious reasons their efforts are mostly confined to understanding the military balance. Other agencies do track data and trends and make reports within their purview, such as the Department of Labor or Health and Human Services. However, no agency or interagency network or research institute is tasked with crafting a framework to evaluate sources of American power, anticipate opportunities to develop comparative advantages or to mitigate vulnerabilities, or to be used as the basis for policy formation and strategic decision-making. There is no framework that provides the understanding of complex network relationships and evaluates it as an organic whole.9

This is not to say that no one has suggested doing so. One such approach, Strategic Advantage by Bruce Berkowitz, argued that in order for the U.S. to remain the global leader in the 21st Century, it must achieve organizational agility, optimally manage risk, better navigate the crosscurrents of economic development and democratic institutions, and use its comparative advantages effectively. This requires a constant evaluation process of macro-trends in demographics, economics, commercial use, technology, health, and other factors, and how those factors shape national power and create opportunities and vulnerabilities. Importantly, there is a pacing element to power creation and sustainment based around economic constraints and the realities of American political support. In a complex threat environment with competing – and sometimes conflicting – interests, the challenge will be developing, selecting, and combining various capabilities (military, economic, diplomatic, etc.), and then recombining them as conditions change, while avoiding becoming so overcommitted in addressing one threat that we are unable to address others.10

Six principles guide this framework. This first is to understand the potential scenarios for world events, and the important variables (demographic, economic, technology, etc.) that underlie each scenario and identify the mileposts that might signal how these scenarios would play out. The second principle is to recognize the United States’ unique strengths that provide it outsized advantages and to identify how these strengths might be cultivated and exploited. Next, planning must anticipate that changes in the environment occur rapidly, and assumptions will likely not remain valid for more than three to five years, at best. Planning must also account for constraints on both resources and public opinion. Success will require an organizational approach that accommodates more risk and is agile enough to respond to changes in the environment. Finally, maintaining a strategic advantage will depend on the availability of resources, which emphasizes the centrality of economic growth toward national security, preparedness, and mobilization.11

From Whole-of-Government to Whole-of-Society

For a whole-of-society approach to be truly meaningful, it must reach beyond the federal, state, and local governments, as well as beyond traditional social institutions such as chambers of commerce and trade unions. A few lessons from the mobilization during the Second World War still apply, but none more so than organizing industrial mobilization around industry, rather than government, which was central to the explosive growth in American capacity to provide the bulk of war materiel for all allies. This was only possible because industry and labor led the approach. While the government stepped in to regulate consumption through the rationing of certain goods and services, production always remained voluntary and driven by incentive. As early as 1938, industrial mobilization planning was built around getting ahead of the problem to determine what was needed and when, rather than what American industry had the capacity to produce. This drove a requirements-based process while helping build production momentum.12

A major war in the 21st Century will certainly look much different in the production and employment of war materiel, but what might matter more is how the United States organizes its preparedness and mobilization planning to leverage its comparative advantages.

While it is important for the federal government to organize and sustain the effort, state and local governments must have a role in decision-making on national-level priorities. Key economic sectors in finance, logistics, transportation, health care, manufacturing, retail, telecommunications, and others represent a large source of national power. No less so are public education and institutes of higher learning, training and certification bodies, and community organizations such as the American Red Cross and United Way. Important in the 21st Century is the growing role of social media “influencers” and YouTube stars, as well as bottom-up capital generation like Kickstarter and community activism tools such as Non-traditional platforms and organizations can bring innovative ways of thinking and alternative approaches to mobilization and preparedness planning.

Some states are approaching preparedness in novel ways. The Ohio National Guard has created the Ohio Cyber Reserve, teams of trained civilians available to assist municipalities with cybersecurity vulnerabilities and provide recommendations to reduce threats. They also provide workforce development training and education services in local schools. This approach can be expanded with government support to create citizen volunteer organizations modeled on the Civil Air Patrol to better utilize the large population of Americans who may not be interested in government or military service but have unique skill sets such as  on-net operations, resiliency testing, critical infrastructure protection roles, and youth mentorship in science, technology, engineering and the liberal arts.13

“Survive, Then Transition”

The stages of mobilization are traditionally crisis mobilization, tactical mobilization, and strategic mobilization. However, the character of warfare in the information age suggests that adversaries will likely engage in non-kinetic disruption attacks, potentially on a mass scale, to achieve strategic effects well before initiating open hostilities. Disruptive attacks on preparation activities and material production will likely thwart or slow the U.S.’s ability to mobilize, marshal forces, and project power. These attacks may go on for months or years, in pursuit of long-term weakening by delegitimizing democratic institutions, sowing social discord, or even increasing the use of addictive opioids among the population, thereby rendering them unfit not only for military service, but unemployable in most industries. It might be wise to assume that the U.S. is under attack right now for the express purpose of rendering its mobilization and preparedness capability impossible.

As discussed above, policymakers should create a strategic warning regime tailored to detect these types of mass disruptive attacks, while building intelligence collection capabilities and analytic techniques to support strategic warning. Still, the ability of an adversary to initiate a surprise attack on a global scale, along with the complexity and high tempo of modern combat suggests that against a peer adversary like China, the United States and its allies could quickly find themselves overwhelmed in one or more theaters. Maintaining credible, forward deployed combat power is challenging now, and growing more so each day. 

This suggests that the United States would have to develop deep enough stocks and magazines to sustain combat forces in the early stages of a conflict (the “staying power” that the Reagan Administration attempted to address). However, the current mix of highly exquisite and expensive weapons systems has left the resources available for war reserve stocks nearly non-existent. Therefore, once military forces and the homeland have survived an initial onslaught, the U.S. will face two choices: try to reconstitute and replace forces or begin a transition to new capabilities that can be fielded rapidly and inexpensively while achieving required operational and strategic results. The fact that the force design and its supporting defense industrial base cannot be meaningfully expanded to keep up with anticipated attrition levels suggests that new means of rapid capability employment will be required.

The Defense Department has expanded its efforts to go outside of the traditional defense industry base and encourage companies to do business with the Pentagon, giving the military access to unique products and services as well as alternative approaches to design, production and sustainment. Through initiatives like the Defense Innovation Unit and legislative action to expand the use of Other Transaction Authorities, the Defense Department has adapted many commercially available products to military use, from personal communication devices to unmanned systems. 

Large companies are investing significantly in autonomy, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality to create new products, improve business logistics and administration, and meet changing consumer demands. Defense leaders should identify and improve upon lessons from employing non-traditional defense companies in order to transition to innovative and sustainable ways to deliver kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities. For example, there is a growing hobby in using a 3-D printer to create drones, leading to innovation in drone design, applications, time to develop, and reduced costs. In a strategic competition, actors can apply new and novel uses of information technology to dynamically impact global economies, public diplomacy, and influence campaigns to achieve strategic effects.

Integrating Allies into U.S. Preparedness

American security ultimately depends upon collective security, a fact that is often overlooked in preparedness planning. While the U.S. military and State Department have a long history of working with allies, friends, and partners to advance security interests, these efforts may not have the efficacy they once did, as China has aggressively sought to bond itself economically to American allies. Commercial and industrial interests are a strategic vulnerability to the democracies, unlike the Cold War where they were an asset. This has caused friction between the U.S. and its allies, especially concerning the use of Chinese companies to build critical infrastructure or operate maritime ports and transportation networks.

At present, only limited efforts exist to evaluate allied and partner nation industrial capacity, defense capabilities, research and development programs, dual-use technology development and applications, sustainment, and political resiliency. There is growing concern that as the gap between U.S. and allied military technology expands, interoperability between allied and coalition forces will become far more difficult. The inability to share resource, sustainment, and logistical burdens would place both U.S. and allied security at risk. The U.S.’s past successes in allied and coalition warfighting have largely been because of early agreement and understanding not only of the strategic objectives but also of partner burden sharing and mutual support. The U.S., given the size of its military, will likely have the largest share of the burden, and allies and partners must be able to receive and use American support.

Coordination of cross-domain operations, including space, cyber, and the electromagnetic domains, will be central to coalition warfighting and strategic competition campaigns that fall below the warfighting threshold. The U.S. will have allies of varying levels of sophistication, capabilities, and resources. Even allied and partner nations that operate comparable technology, such as Japan, South Korea, Israel, and the U.K., may have structural challenges that make coordination with the U.S. or with each other difficult. 

U.S. policy continues to emphasize self-sufficiency and autarky for its defense industrial base. This policy needs to be re-evaluated considering the increasing use of commercial and dual-use technology, much of which is developed in allied and partner countries. 

Fortunately, the U.S. and its allies have a long history of alliance management, cooperation on mutual interests, and integrated command structures. This is especially true for NATO, “Five-Eyes” partners, Japan, and South Korea. NATO established the Partnership Interoperability Initiative in 2014, which was also broadened to include Australia, Finland, Georgia, Jordan, and Sweden. NATO’s experience in the Balkans and Afghanistan highlighted many of the challenges forces had in standards, doctrine, logistics, and sustainment. The U.S. also maintained combined forces commands in Japan and South Korea, to include coalition war planning, exercises, basing, and sustainment. 

Expanding integration and interoperability is one area of mobilization preparedness that holds a great deal of promise. These efforts should be deepened to include joint development of research, development, and dual-use technology goals; combined command, control systems; and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and domain awareness capabilities. This may necessitate expanding and improving the ability of U.S. and allies to share a common operating picture that enables tactical tracking to find, fix, and finish targets across coalition platforms. 

Coordinated industrial base expansion, sustainment, tooling, and logistics support will be critical to maximizing comparative advantages that the alliance system provides. The U.S. and its allies should undertake further weapons system and platform development capabilities, to include non-traditional and dual use civilian-military capabilities. This may mean accepting the tradeoff between high-end, exquisite systems and moderately less capable, but still effective combat and non-kinetic systems that all parties can operate. In a strategic competition or conflict with China, and the immense industrial capacity it can harness, this could be the best option. It frees up a portion of the U.S. information technology and industrial base to develop and produce future high-end systems while spreading out the production of moderately capable systems that can be brought into the competition or conflict more rapidly. 

Such an expansion will require a dedicated, regular, systematic evaluation of allied and partner capabilities, more frequent combined and coalition exercises, and deeper coordination of planning and planning assumptions. Early and often allied wargaming, to include frank discussions on potential strategic and political goals, will greatly improve planning assumptions and further guide research, development, production, and operational concepts that are tailored to better meet alliance goals.

Understand and Educate the American People 

To paraphrase former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. will compete with the population it has, not the one it wants. That is, policy makers must realistically assess the willingness and desire of the American population to support and sustain another indefinite competition and conflict with a major power. The fiscal burden of creating and sustaining American power is likely to grow. This will come at a time when it will be incumbent on decision-makers to address the entire scope of national taxation and spending. Hard trade-offs will be required.

Yet fiscal constraints are only one piece of the puzzle. Even if the resources were readily available, it is not entirely clear that the population of 2020 is particularly interested in competing. The Cold War was born out of the Second World War, and early system shocks caused a reappraisal of U.S. efforts to rebuild the world order while being confronted with a global communist movement that had other designs. 

Part of this is due to the nature of how the Cold War ended and the brief, unipolar moment the United States enjoyed. Little effort was given to recapitalizing the institutions necessary to meet a new, peer challenger. Even conservative, anti-communist stalwarts argued that it was time for America to become a “normal nation,” and shed the burden of global leadership. The lack of an existential threat made such calls even more appealing.

Recent polling suggests that a smaller portion of younger generations – Generation “Z” and Millennials – view the United States as “better” than all other countries, an idea commonly called “American exceptionalism.” At the same time, significant gaps exist between the younger and older generations on perceived threats to America, with Millennials pointing to “climate change” (62%) as a bigger threat than “the development of China as a world power” (35%), “North Korea’s nuclear program,” (55%) or the “rise of authoritarianism around the world” (42%).

To be sure, as one ages and experiences the world, the perception of threats will likely change, and generations do not hold monolithic views that remain etched in stone. Evidence suggests that the public is growing far more wary of China as a threat, and CCP leadership’s complicity in covering up the danger of the COVID-19 pandemic may further incur the American public’s anger. The vast majority of Americans still believe that a future with U.S. leadership is far better than a world led by Beijing.14

Yet it would be the most profound failure of policy for the United States to execute a grand strategy designed to compete with, and if necessary, fight Communist China if popular consensus is not there. Indeed, it would be disastrous. This is more important for younger generations as it is they who will face most of the sacrifice. The underlying assumption behind competing with China is that the American people are invested in the cause. If that assumption is misplaced, then a competition strategy cannot succeed, and the U.S. is likely to suffer a catastrophic loss.

Implementing a competition strategy will require not only public debate, but also public accountability, and the willingness to craft policy and strategy around the constraints of public opinion. While public opinion can be moved, the case must be made. This must be central to American grand strategy, strategic competition, mobilization, and preparedness planning. The current complacency regarding the public’s declining trust in institutions and America’s role in the world is dangerous. Foreign powers actively engage in strategies to undermine American political legitimacy and resiliency, but they need only accentuate the domestic trends that are already present. 

Preparedness and mobilization planning remain central to America’s ability to defend its interests and the cause of freedom. This is worth fighting for. But it cannot be defended without the support of the people. It is a political case that must be made at all levels of government and society. It will require a renewed effort toward public education, and frank, honest debate about the sacrifice required. To best make the case, policy makers have to meet the American public where they are, using terms that convey the gravity of the situation and the stakes involved.

 LCDR Bebber is a Cryptologic Warfare officer assigned to Information Warfare Training Command Corry Station in Pensacola, Florida. The views expressed here do not represent those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy or the U.S. government. He welcomes your comments at


1 Cynthia M. Grabo, Anticipating Surprise: Analysis for Strategic Warning (Lanham: University Press of America, 2004), 4.

2 Grabo.

3 Maureen Rhemann, “Intelligence Analysis in a Post-Heuer World: Why We Don’t Recognize New Forms of Warfare and 6 Intelligence Take-Aways From Neuroscience” (Reperi Analysis Center, 2020).

4 Celeste Chen, Jacob Andriola, and James Giordano, “Biotechnology, Commercial Veiling, and Implications for Strategic Latency: The Exemplar of Neuroscience and Neurotechnology Research and Development in China,” in Strategic Latency: Red, White, and Blue, ed. Zachary S. Davis and Michael Nacht (Livermore: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 2018).

5 Richards J. Heuer, “Limits of Intelligence Analysis,” Orbis Winter (2005): 76–77.

6 Techno-Financial Intelligence was pioneered by the Reperi Analysis Center (RAC) in 1999 to detect future disruption blending leading data sets to detect asymmetric pre-cursors and perfected with advanced algorithms in 2020. It assumes behavior is telegraphed and users 7-S/ADP and other processes.

7 Maureen Rhemann, “What We’ve Learned from 20 Years of Techno-Financial Intelligence” (Reperi Analysis Center, 2020).

8 James Giordano and Rachel Wurzman, “Integrative Computational and Neurocognitive Science and Technology for Intelligence Operations: Horizons of Potential Viability, Value and Opportunity,” STEPS 4 (2016): 32–37.

9 For a brief overview of how China approaches this challenge, see the Appendix on Comprehensive National Power which is found in the longer study published at the Journal of Political Risk.

10 Bruce Berkowitz, Strategic Advantage: Challengers, Competitors, and Threats to America’s Future (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2008).

11 Berkowitz, 231–32.

12 Herman, Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II.

13  Robert Bebber, Interview: Dr. Peter W. Singer, January 16, 2020.

14 Devlin, Silver, and Huang, “U.S. Views of China Increasingly Negative Amid Coronavirus Outbreak.”

Featured Image: Fighter aircraft under construction at the Bell Aircraft Corporation plant at Wheatfield, New York. (U.S. National Archives)

State of War, State of Mind: Reconsidering Mobilization in the Information Age, Pt. 1

By LCDR Robert “Jake” Bebber, USN

This article is part one of a two-part piece, drawn from a recently completed report by the author that was published by The Journal of Political Risk, and is available in its entirety here


Recently, American policymakers and national security thinkers have begun to recognize that revisionist powers in the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) and Russia have no interest in preserving the current liberal order, and instead have embarked on a course to challenge and supplant the U.S. as the world’s superpower. However, the United States is not postured to mobilize for long-term strategic competition or war with great powers. 

American policymakers’ assumptions regarding war preparation, prosecution, and sustainment are not aligned to the emerging 21st Century landscape dominated by three major trends: advances in understanding of neuroscience, dual-use technologies, and new financial business models. These articles take a holistic approach toward identifying how war mobilization in the 21st Century will look different from the industrial models of the mid-to-late 20th Century. Looking beyond the Defense Department, they explore economic, policy, social, technological, and informational aspects of planning and preparation. Part Two will identify why the intelligence and national security communities are not postured to detect or anticipate emerging disruptions and strategic latency. It will put forward strategies and recommendations on how to grow American power and create new sources of comparative advantage that can be rapidly converted into both kinetic and non-kinetic effects in all domains, not just military.

21st Century Trends That Will Shape the Coming War 

Three main forces will shape the 21st Century: advances in neuroscience, emerging dual-use technologies, and new financial business models. The convergence of these forces creates disruptions on a mass scale. Chinese and Russian operations, policies, and investment decisions, along with market forces and changing consumer preferences each play a part in the changing geopolitical landscape, threatening the efficacy of American assumptions in strategic competition, war preparation, prosecution, and sustainment. This requires rethinking how the U.S. considers strategic warning and intelligence during peacetime, the transition from competition to conflict, the resiliency and capacity of current forces to “weather the storm” of initial combat, and whether the country is postured to transition to other means of using force during a global war with a great power. Perhaps most important will be the means by which the U.S. sustains its economic power and the political will to fight. Right now, adversaries are conducting systematic attacks on U.S. and allied sources of economic power, reducing and eliminating what was once considered the principle advantage of industrialized democracies, while at the same time using non-kinetic means to deliver mass cognitive attacks, destabilizing political societies.

The Brain as the Battlefield

Over the past forty years, scientists have made significant advancements in the study of the human brain. James Giordano and others point to immense potential for neuroscience and neurotechnology to “study, predict and influence” human ecologies, potentially affecting human activities on individual, group, and population levels, and human relations on a local, regional, and global scale. These understandings will permit the U.S. and its competitors to develop capabilities to assess, access, and affect the human brain. It will come to influence, and perhaps dominate, the posture and conduct of national security and the defense agenda.

The growth in understanding of the human brain, from evaluating its components and functions, to accessing and influencing it, will be a central focus of strategic competition, not unlike the space program of the Cold War, but with perhaps even more profound implications — the weaponization of brain sciences. Neuroscience can be leveraged as a soft weapon to create economic advantages, intelligence capabilities, and advanced psychological influence operations such as narrative networks. More concerning is how neuroscience can help develop hard weapons that use chemicals, biologicals, toxins, and devices to have physical effects.

Neuroscientific advancement also has significant neuro-enablement application potential to enhance the performance military operators and intelligence officers. More broadly, these understandings can also be used to understand and shape public behavior.

Strategic competitors have invested considerable resources in the research, development, and fielding of neuroscience and biotechnology. China has announced initiatives to position itself as the leading power in brain science and is openly exploring the application of brain sciences to hard and soft power. Military writers and researchers in China argue that future battlefield success will depend on “biological dominance,” “mental/cognitive dominance,” and “intelligence dominance,” and are applying insights from neuroscience to exploit vulnerabilities in human cognition, to include the development of “brain control weaponry.”

Dual-Use, Radical Leveling, and Emerging Technologies

A key driver of strategic competition is the explosive growth in globally powerful “dual-use” or “dual purpose” technologies. These include mobile internet, cloud computing, the exploitation of “big data,” the “internet of things,” ubiquitous sensors, nano-materials, additive manufacturing, self-navigating vehicles, autonomous industrial and civilian robots, artificial intelligence and machine learning, advanced energy storage, renewable energy, and “do it yourself” genomics. Since the end of the Cold War, advances in these technologies have had a significant impact on military technology and operational concepts1 in areas as diverse as space and cyberspace operations, biological weapons development, precision guided munitions (PGM), the realization of transoceanic-range precision strikes, autonomous unmanned combat systems and platforms (to include swarms), directed energy combat systems, and enhanced and protected infantry.2

More profound perhaps is how existing and emerging developments in science and technology enhance power in non-kinetic engagements, creating mass disruptive “weapons” that “incur rippling effects in and across targeted individuals, societies and nations.” These actions “can adversely impact, if not defeat, an opponent …” without meeting the current legally accepted criteria of an explicit act of war. These engagements may cause immediate-to-long-term damage to popular stability, but because the perpetrator of these engagements might remain ambiguous, it is politically problematic for the victim to respond. These types of operations are exceptionally difficult to identify in advance as threats, or can evoke effects which “may not be easily recognizable or attributable to the technology or the actor(s).”3

Adversaries pursue these dual-use technologies as means to deliver effects on a population’s brains, or even its genetic code, through the use of the electromagnetic spectrum via radio frequency or directed energy.4 The increased proliferation of Chinese telecommunications hardware, platforms, and infrastructure may provide a way for the PRC to conduct surveillance, collect intelligence, and execute influence operations. It is also a means to use the frequency spectrum to deliver effects at the neurological and even genetic level.5 This would likely be done using mundane and ubiquitous technology, such as 5G networks, cell phone applications, or even music or video streams.6

Economic War Matters More

Investment decisions may telegraph human behavior and intent,7 and identify future asymmetric disruptions in ways superior to traditional strategic intelligence tradecraft. Investments can have multiplier effects that can move entire commercial sectors globally, with profound implications in a strategic competition where understanding future business models is more important than understanding future technology. 

For example, Chinese telecommunication firms can now exert considerable influence because they enjoy approximately 78% of the leverage in the $3.5 trillion global communications industry.8 These firms should not be confused with traditionally understood commercial firms in the democracies, however. The Chinese Communist Party has put in place a legal and political regime that effectively controls corporate operations. This influence began when a Chinese state-owned enterprise made the initial investment in Huawei, telegraphing the Party’s intent to influence the global telecommunications industry.9 The Party has translated its investment into geo-economic effects that create debt obligations among developing countries (“debt-trap diplomacy”) as well as provide entry to Chinese “techno-authoritarian” influence and control of communities and states outside of China.

American national security planners must consider how to build sources of economic power, and sustain that power in a time of strategic competition and conflict, when America’s competitors exercise significant leverage over American, allied, and global industries. The capture and control of key industries such as telecommunications or space systems will circumscribe U.S. power and force policymakers into more difficult trade-offs to sustain a conflict. Information is a strategic resource and should be treated as such.10


The strategic competition between the United States and Allies, China, and Russia, and how states attempt to create and wield power on a global scale will drive the future security environment. There are two broad competing visions of international order: the Chinese and Russian techno-authoritarian model of control, and the liberal model of broadly supported international rules. The chance of this strategic competition erupting into outright conflict is very real.

The fact that both China and the United States – and important powers such as Russia, Great Britain, India, France, Pakistan, and others – are nuclear powers shape the competition in ways similar to the Cold War. Each side will seek to achieve strategic effects while attempting to limit the likelihood of a nuclear exchange. However, as the balance between conventional and non-kinetic powers of each side fluctuate, the risk grows that competitors will see their options reduced to “go nuclear or surrender,” as President Kennedy famously suggested.

This competition, like the one with the Soviets, will require a national effort toward sustained power creation and planning toward the sustained conversion of power into wartime, crisis, and peacetime capabilities. The United States is in the early stages of evaluating its level of preparedness. There are also important distinctions between the current Information Age and how future technologies will reshape human behavior and our understanding of it, and what that means for power creation, sustainment, and rapid conversion. Theoretical frameworks drawn from the Cold War provide some broad insights, but new approaches will be required.

Ultimately, strategic competition, mobilization, and preparedness are still acts of political will, and no effort will be sustainable that does not have the broad buy-in from the American people. It will require not only engagement from senior leaders and elected officials, but also their bipartisan leadership in explaining, gaining, and keeping political support.

Part two of this article will outline what steps the U.S. and Allies should take. When the brain is a battlefield, American paradigms of conflict preparation and executions must change to meet the challenges of an increasingly connected world.

LCDR Bebber is a Cryptologic Warfare officer assigned to Information Warfare Training Command Corry Station in Pensacola, Florida. The views expressed here do not represent those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy or the U.S. government. He welcomes your comments at


1 Snow, Jen “Radical Leveling Technologies: What They Are, Why They Matter, and the Challenges to Come” Seminar Middlebury Institute of International Studies, Monterey, April 25, 2016.

2 Peter A. Wilson. “Concepts of National Mobilization circa 2036: Implications of Emerging Dual-Purpose and Military Technologies” prepared in support of the “Mobilization in 2030+” tabletop exercise played by the Long-Term Strategy program, (NDU Eisenhower School) March 30, 2016.

3 James Giordano, Joseph DeFranco & L.R. Bremseth “Radical Leveling and Emerging Technologies as Tools of Non-Kinetic Mass Disruption” Invited Perspective Series: Strategic Multilayer Assessment Future of Global Competition & Conflict Effort, February 3, 2019.

4 Markov, Marko S. ““Biological windows”: a tribute to W. Ross Adey.” Environmentalist 25.2-4 (2005): 67-74.

5 Ranzato, M.A., Boureau, Y.L., Chopra, S. and LeCun, Y., March. A unified energy-based framework for unsupervised learning. In Artificial Intelligence and Statistics. 2007. (pp. 371-379).

6 Adey, W.R., Brain interactions with RF/microwave fields generated by mobile phones. International Encyclopedia of Neuroscience. Third Edition. New York: Elsevier. 2003.

7 Rhemann, Maureen. Exploring Asymmetry to Detect Disruption 2018. Journal of Futures Studies 23(2), pp.85-99.

8 Rhemann, Maureen. “Disrupted. Space 2030”; Reperi Analysis Center (RAC). December, 2019.

9 USCC Research Staff, “The National Security Implications of Investments and Products from the People’s Republic of China in the Telecommunications Sector” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. – China Economic and Security Review Commission, January 2011).

10 Robert J. Bebber, “Treating Information as a Strategic Resource to Win the ‘Information War,’” Orbis Summer (2017): 394–403.

Featured Image: A naval honor guard at the in 2012 onboard the Chinese carrier Liaoning. (Xinhua News Agency Photo)

Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution

August Cole and P.W. Singer, Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic RevolutionHoughton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020, $28/hardcover, 432 pages.

By LCDR Robert “Jake” Bebber USN

Peter W. Singer and August Cole have once again collaborated on a “useful fiction” project (their term) entitled, Burn-In. A “burn-in” refers to the “continuous operation of a device (such as a computer) to test for defects or failure prior to putting it to use.” In this case, the novel follows the story of an FBI agent, Lara Keegan, who finds herself paired with a “Tactical Autonomous Mobility System” or “TAMS,” an autonomous robot gifted with artificial intelligence and human-like features, though smaller than your average person at only five feet tall.

In a brief epilogue to the reader, Singer and Cole explain why they undertook this project. They argue that we are in the midst of a new industrial and information revolution which touches every segment of society, and will create political, social, economic, cultural, and security disruptions on a scale never before endured. “What is worrisome is how poorly understood [this revolution] is, both by the public and by policymakers. It is not just that too many lack a sense of the scale of change that is to come, but also the ability to visualize it.”

The authors draw the reader into a world that is at once familiar, and yet near-dystopian. The trials of life, raising children, providing for a family and ultimately doing one’s duty are set against a backdrop of immense economic dislocation and social unrest. Throughout the book we are given glimpses into a future America that on some level shows the hope and promise of technology and how it can empower lives. At the same time, the dislocation caused by automation in many cases replaces human decision-making with algorithms, and is brought home to the reader in Keegan’s strained relationship with her husband Jared, whose promising law career has been cut short. The reader can sense the tension and bitterness as Jared had been reduced to a virtual reality “gig economy” to help the family make ends meet. Their young daughter Haley becomes both the anchor for the couple and the bridge between the family and this new way of life.

In many respects, the social and economic dislocation as a result of the quickening pace of technological change is nothing new in history. The late 18th to early 20th centuries witnessed the transition from an agrarian-based way of life to one based on industrialization and commercial exchange. The pace of technological change has only quickened during that time. As the majority of the planet’s population now lives in urban centers, technological change between human generations has sped up exponentially. Futurist Ray Kurzweil suggests there is a law of accelerating returns, arguing that as civilizations repurpose and build upon the technologies of the previous generations, the rate of change is compounded exponentially. With an exponential growth rate, understanding the implications of new technology becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Decision-makers from Congress and corporate boardrooms to family households are likely to find themselves in a perpetual “analysis paralysis loop,” unable to cope. We see much of this manifest today in our world. Consider the following:

  • As men’s employment prospects have declined, so have their prospects of marriage. Overall loss of economic opportunity has only exacerbated an opioid addiction crisis which makes a sizeable portion of the working-age population unemployable.
  • People’s willingness to share personal information has fundamentally changed our notion of privacy. Movement, interaction, and exchange is being tracked and monitored by governments, companies, universities, parents, and employers. Yet the social response has been muted, at best, to this transformation. We live in a world where convenience has taken on a higher value than privacy.
  • The principle means of social interaction is now through some form of platform-based technology, such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. However, communication, traditionally defined as a means of transmitting knowledge or information to another person, has evolved into a performance mechanism, designed to either signal our virtue or perpetuate outrage. It has proven to be a very capable tool of social disruption and manipulation.
  • Advancing technology has vastly improved the material condition of humanity to the point where some of the poorest areas of the globe would almost be considered moderately well-off compared to where they were a few decades ago. Technology and material goods that were prohibitively expensive just a few short years ago are almost ubiquitous now, creating change in our patterns of behavior and attitudes toward luxury and class. Today, in an era where almost every child in America has a smartphone, only 30 percent of children in working class families live at home with their biological parents, compared to 85 percent of children in affluent families. In 1960, 95 percent of children of both classes lived with their biological parents.
  • Even now, though, universally available information technology is changing more than our patterns of behavior, it might be creating physiological changes that resemble addictive disorders. These addictive disorders are only exacerbated when policies are adopted encouraging drug legalization without fully understanding the health care costs associated with long-term use, especially on teenagers and young adults, whose cognitive performance is declining.

Singer and Cole paint multiple pictures of America, showing broad landscapes as well as intimate portraits. Early on we find parts of Washington D.C. “occupied” by a veterans’ group in a scene reminiscent of the Bonus Army march from 1932. In the last third of the book, Americans across the demographic and ideological divide take to the streets after a series of major shocks and disasters, looking for someone or something to blame. Much like the ease with which humans psychologically attach sinister motives to unnamed and ill-defined entities like the “Deep State” or “Big Oil,” these Americans lash out at what they think is “out-of-control technology,” without really having an idea of what to do, other than rage. They are ripe for manipulation and corruption without realizing their own vulnerability. And it is when Keegan’s own family gets caught up in the maelstrom that the reader begins to understand both the seething anger of Americans like Jared, as well as the hope and promise of what TAMS can do.

The Keegan-TAMS relationship evolves throughout the novel, trying to answer the question of human meaning and purpose in a world where, on the surface, TAMS might appear to be superior to a human in every way. TAMS can amass and process nearly infinite amounts of data to understand patterns and learn, while being stronger, faster, and in many cases more creative. Yet much eludes TAMS and, like the character Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, it will never be human. The question becomes whether we will remain human.

The book, like the other noteworthy novel the two collaborated on, Ghost Fleet, meets its purpose skillfully. It is both lively, entertaining, and well-written as well as thought-provoking. Some will no doubt quibble with certain fictional elements, which naturally misses the point. The authors hope to leave the reader asking more questions rather than giving ready answers. The characters are engaging, yet flawed human beings, while TAMS is seemingly omniscient, yet innocent and ignorant. The writing is lively and colorful, and should be essential reading for anyone who looks out at the landscape today and sees clouds looming over the horizon.

LCDR Robert “Jake” Bebber is a cryptologic warfare officer assigned to Information Warfare Training Command Corry Station in Pensacola, Florida. LCDR Bebber was most recently the Cryptologic Resource Coordinator for the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy from the University of Central Florida, and his writing has appeared in Proceedings, Orbis, Comparative Strategy, Journal of Information Warfare, Cipherbrief and CIMSEC. He is supported by his wife, Dana, and their two children Zachary and Vincent. LCDR Bebber welcomes your comments at These views are presented in a personal capacity. 

Featured Image: “Cyberpunk Street” by Sergii Golotovskiy via Artstation

A Cyber-Information Operations Offset Strategy for Countering the Surge of Chinese Power Pt. 2

The following is a two-part series on how the U.S. might better utilize cyberspace and information operations as a Third Offset. Part I evaluated current offset proposals and explores the strategic context. Part II provides specific cyber/IO operations and lines of effort. Read Part One here.

By Jake Bebber

Targeting China’s ability to control information is an efficient means to offset Chinese power. To be effective, the United States should adopt a “whole of government” approach, leveraging cyberspace and other information related capabilities that can hold China’s domestic internet filtering, censorship, and information dissemination capabilities at risk. This campaign should operate across the entire spectrum of conflict and engagement, from public diplomacy and strategic communication, to battlespace preparation, limited conflict, and if de-escalation is unsuccessful, full-spectrum military operations. It will likely require coordination and administration at the highest civilian leadership level. This will be a long-term campaign aiming to counter China during the critical window in the next ten to twenty years when Chinese economic and military power will surge, and then subside as demographic factors limit its growth causing China to enter into a period of decline and inherently shifts its focus inward to to maintain stability.

The United States will have to address three broad issues: access, authorities, and capabilities. Internet access into China is restricted from the outside, and it is reasonable to assume that during a period of rising tensions or even conflict, traditional means of accessing China’s “red space” (civilian, military, and government networks) will not be available. The U.S. will need alternative avenues into Chinese networks, which may take the form of radio frequency injection into wireless networks (Bluetooth, WiFi and WiMAX)[i] to other methods targeting the physical and logical network layers and cyber-persona layers[ii] of cyberspace for preplacement of access.

Figure 1. The Three Layers of Cyberspace[iii]
The Three Layers of Cyberspace [iii].

The authority of the U.S. government to operate in cyberspace crosses boundaries and jurisdictions, and largely depends on the function of the agency or entity. Traditional military activities conducted by the Department of Defense are covered under Title 10 of U.S. Code, with the principal being the Secretary of Defense. Other titles supporting cyberspace operations include foreign intelligence collection (Title 50), domestic security (Title 6), law enforcement (Title 18) and government information technology security and acquisition (Title 40).[iv] These authorities will have to be aligned and deconflicted.

The capabilities required run the spectrum. They can include fully attributable on-net operations, such as a Foreign Service Officer participating in an online forum or social network to communicate U.S. policy, to the development of tools and malware that can degrade and disrupt command and control networks. Other possibilities include the distribution of encrypted personal communication devices and unattributable social media and organizing applications that permit dissident groups within China to maintain situational awareness.

There have been attempts to respond to China’s growing Internet censorship capabilities by those in the telecommunications industry and by the U.S. government. The Global Network Initiative was started in 2008 by industry, civic organizations, and universities to “promote best practices related to the conduct of U.S. companies in countries with poor Internet freedom records.” In 2011, the President issued the “International Strategy for Cyberspace.” Its goals include “enabling continued innovation for increasing economic activity, increasing individuals’ ability to communicate with one another, safeguarding freedom of expression, association, and other freedoms, and enhancing both individual privacy and national and international security.” The U.S. Department of State includes Internet freedom as a part of its global human rights agenda. In 2006, State formed the Global Internet Freedom Taskforce which later became the NetFreedom Taskforce, to coordinate State Department efforts monitoring Internet freedom. Both the State Department and U.S Agency for International Development have received funding for the development of Internet censorship circumvention technologies, training of non-government organizations and activists, media assistance, and leading international policy formulation on Internet freedom.[v]

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) programs, also supports counter-censorship and circumvention software development and distribution. The VOA sends daily emails to “8 million Chinese citizens … with international and domestic news stories as well as information about how to use proxy servers.” The RFA has implemented the Freedom2Connect program to “research, develop, and deliver online tools for Internet users in China to securely browse online and send secure e-mail.”[vi]

While important, the current response by industry and government lacks both the senior policy coordination required of a grand strategy or adequate funding to keep up with China’s growing Internet monitoring and censorship capabilities. They do not fully leverage other assets and tools at America’s disposal. The U.S. can and should be doing much more to attack China’s critical vulnerabilities in information control.

Lines of Effort

Public Diplomacy – At the interagency level, the United States should continue pursuing bilateral, multilateral, and international agreements such as those mentioned above which promote freedom of information, expression and freedom from government oversight and censorship. The U.S. should also continue to strengthen international regimes against cybercrime and intellectual property theft. Internet norms and rules should be standardized across political boundaries where practical. This diplomatic effort ties into longstanding American policy of supporting freedom of speech and protection of universal human rights.

Economic Policy and Trade – Here again, longstanding American policy supporting property rights and free trade legitimize the continued advocacy of international agreements and accords promoting freedom in cyberspace. At the same time, the U.S. must tighten technology export controls to nations like China that continue to restrict access. In the event of industrial espionage or even cyber-attack, the U.S. can impose real economic costs and sanctions. The U.S. can also move on the Global Online Freedom Act, which would, among other things, prohibit U.S. companies from cooperating with foreign governments that engage in censorship or human rights abuses, require the U.S. Trade Representative to report on trade-related issues that arise out of a foreign government’s censorship policies, and impose export controls on telecommunications equipment that can be used to carry out censorship or surveillance.[vii] Some of these provisions can be waived when it suits American interests. In other areas, the U.S. can also promote public cybersecurity regimes, such as international risk insurance tools and accreditation that encourage network protection and hardening in the private sector.

Strategic Communication – In modern war, the actions of a single Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine can have a far-reaching impact on national strategy. While this is often used to highlight the potential implications of an untoward or controversial event, the reverse also holds true. The actions of every member of the U.S. government, from Foreign Service officer, embassy staff and humanitarian assistance officer to those of the military can have an equally positive impact if the appropriate messages are coordinated and timed to unfolding events. The United States should expand strategic communication tools such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. Using new capabilities in cyberspace and in personal communications, a comprehensive program of unbiased news delivery and strategic messaging to the Chinese public on a much larger scale can, over time, provide alternatives to Chinese government propaganda. Not to be forgotten, approximately two million Chinese visit the United States each year as tourists[viii], and around a quarter of a million Chinese students attend college in the U.S.[ix] Each visitor and student represents an opportunity for engagement.

Cyberspace Operations – Being able to deliver effects in and through cyberspace to China is a question of both access and capabilities. China has one of the most robust and sophisticated information control systems in the world, with multiple internal security and military organizations and tens of thousands of Chinese working daily to censor communications and filter access within China and between China and the world. Network penetrations and preplacement access generation needs to occur now, during peacetime, and continue throughout in order to assure capabilities can be delivered when needed. The fact is that when tensions escalate and China erects more firewalls, penetration becomes that much more difficult, if not impossible. This leaves military commanders and policy-makers little choice but to revert to traditional kinetic tools to dissuade Chinese aggression – exactly the scenario they hope to avoid – and plays to China’s strengths. Developing multiple access vectors now with the capability to hold at-risk, at a time and place of our choosing, information control systems in the long run represent an efficient means of directly attacking China’s most critical vulnerability and holding the Communist Party’s political control at risk. This represents an asymmetric counter to China’s growing A2/AD capabilities, and is a far more efficient and economical alternative.

A snapshot image of cyber attacks. Source: Norse Corp.

Cyberspace operations reside on a continuum, sometimes offensive, sometimes defensive and sometimes both simultaneously. At the same time the U.S. is developing access vectors and tools to exploit China’s information control systems, it must also harden its own military, government, and civilian critical infrastructure networks. Research suggests that improving cyber defenses limit incentives to infiltrate networks for espionage, intellectual property theft, or cyber-attack. A resilience model should be adopted. Instead of building “cyber walls” using a traditional warfare model, cyber defense should model biological systems that can adapt and recover. Systems can be designed to turn the table on intrusions, misdirecting them down false alleys or “sinkholing” them in so-called “honeypots” for study. This can even be effective in passing back false information or simply causing the attacker to waste time and resources chasing phantoms.[x] On the offensive side of the continuum, experts like retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Thomas see the development and fielding of 13 offensive cyber warfare teams as significant. According to him, the Chinese “now know we are ready to go on the offense. There’s something that’s been put in place that I think is going to change their view.”[xi]

Clandestine Action – Due to the difficulties in acquiring and maintaining access in closed networks, the United States will have to undertake clandestine efforts, both in cyberspace and through traditional means. Policy makers should be careful, however, not to be lulled by the lure of technologically-based cyberspace operations as the preferable alternative to traditional human intelligence operations. While the U.S. is right to continue to pursue advances in unmanned vehicles, radio-frequency and electro-magnetic operations, and space-based computer and communication operations, obtaining and maintaining access  in many cases will require mixed-mode penetration: human and cyber action. Cultivating human sources to gain insight into leadership intentions, network configurations, and potential areas of exploitation remain a critical part of a broad information operations campaign. As China continues to pursue clandestine operations against the U.S., both to gather traditional intelligence and to enable their own cyberspace operations, our own counter-intelligence and cyberspace defense capabilities will become that much more important.

These lines of effort will have to be synchronized in a mutually supporting effort. Public diplomacy and strategic communication can be enabled in and through cyberspace. Clandestine action may be required to obtain and maintain access to critical networks. Economic incentives, technology export controls and sanctions will play critical roles at times to advance America’s interests to degrade or disrupt China’s information control systems.

It will be necessary to develop options which degrade China’s information control capabilities incrementally while preserving significant reserves. Historically, this has been especially tricky. Past experience, such as the Vietnam War, suggests that the incremental application of force with too fine of control tends to condition the adversary rather than compel the adversary. The U.S. will need to be able to send “warning shots” that indicate to the CCP that we possess capabilities that will cause them to lose control entirely and threaten their hold on power, allowing the U.S. to prevail. Of course, given that many cyberspace and IO capabilities are perishable once used, the U.S. will need to maintain a host of capabilities able to be delivered across multiple vectors and times and places of our choosing.

One must be mindful that while China’s information controls systems are a critical vulnerability, they are not a gateway to the overthrow of the CCP and the establishment of a democratic government, at least not right away. Data suggests that the vast majority of the Chinese public who utilize the Internet and social media are quite happy with the amount and variety of content available. Only about 10 percent use the Internet for political purposes with the remainder, like their American counterparts, using it for entertainment and socializing.[xii] Therefore, strategic messaging will have to be much less overt and subtler.

We should utilize the natural advantages the U.S. has in the entertainment and public relations world to encourage the public to put pressure on the government gradually, perhaps not directly in the political sphere but rather on natural fissures and tensions already resident, such as corruption, mismanagement, ethnic strife, uneven development, environmental degradation, and the growing wealth gap in China. Consider the recent effort by the U.S. Department of State to publicly highlight air quality in Beijing, resulting in embarrassment as well as change in China’s environmental policies.[xiii] Similar efforts, both public or through providing covert support to internal groups in China, would hopefully have similar impact. The goal will be to keep the CCP looking inward, concerned about social stability, rather than outward, projecting power.

To be successful, it will be necessary to understand at the highest level of detail possible not only the technical aspects of China’s information control apparatus but also its command, control and communication pathways, chain of command, and decision making calculus. Technical intelligence requirements would include network configuration pathways, router and server equipment models, operating and surveillance software versions, administrative controls, wireless hot points and air gaps and fiber network systems. The U.S. will need to know which agencies and bureaucracies are responsible for various kinds of surveillance and what their resident capabilities, gaps and scope of responsibility is. It would be helpful to identify key personalities and understand the resource competition between them in order to exploit them. We need to know how commands are passed down from leadership to operators, and if it is possible to deny, degrade, and in some way get in the middle of those communication pathways. We will also need to know the decision calculus of the Central Standing Committee. What will cause them to want to tighten control, or perhaps better yet, what might they simply ignore? This is certainly not an exhaustive list of intelligence requirements, but gives a sense of the kinds of information that a successful strategy will require.

China’s Response

In war, the enemy gets a vote, so policy makers and military commanders must carefully consider and “wargame” China’s response to a U.S. effort threatening its information control systems. By doing so, the U.S. can better prepare courses of action that counter potential Chinese responses. Traditionally, planners will break down adversary responses into two categories: most likely and most dangerous.

China’s responses are naturally shaped by their historic understanding of their place in the world, and especially the recent “Century of Humiliation” and the role that historical grievance plays in this understanding.[xiv] Attempting to shape the CCP’s ability to control information within China has a direct impact on the regime’s need to mobilize popular support in times of crisis or even war. The CCP has come to realize that “it cannot simply demand compliance and access to materials, people or facilities” as it probably once could during the days of Mao Zedong. The CCP and the PLA have undertaken “a systematic attempt to plan for mobilization, integrating it into economic development.”[xv] This planning includes “information mobilization” due to the “central role of information and information technology, especially in the context of informationized warfare.”[xvi] The various activities proposed here to attack critical vulnerabilities in China’s strategy should be viewed by policy-makers on a continuum of escalation. Public information campaigns highlighting air quality in Beijing will annoy the CCP in a much different way than denying China the ability to filter Internet content or threatening regime legitimacy.

March 22, 2013: Staff members of the newly-merged State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television pose for group photos during a ceremony to hang the new nameplate in Beijing (Photo Credit: Xinhua/Wang Zhen).
March 22, 2013: Staff members of the newly-merged State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television pose for group photos during a ceremony to hang a new nameplate in Beijing (Photo Credit: Xinhua/Wang Zhen).

China’s most likely course of action will be to continue to “plug the gaps” that any U.S. program creates in their information control system. This is a beneficial byproduct since the Chinese will continue to expend time and resources with an inward focus, possibly diverting some of its effort away from cyber espionage, or change its focus of cyber espionage from intellectual property theft to countering U.S. efforts. It will continue to partner with “like minded” regimes such as Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, perhaps targeting U.S. allies in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, to advance an alternative international rule set and standard. China’s “Internet Agenda” will continue to focus on international recognition of state sovereignty over cyberspace, a global internet regulatory scheme that targets cybercrime and terrorism (with sufficiently vague definitions of “crime” and “terrorism” to allow for maximum latitude), and the legitimate role of the state to remain the “gatekeeper” to their country’s access to the internet.[xvii]

We can surmise what effect this strategy might have by examining world events and how the PRC responded when it felt threatened by internal pressures. For example, China has had a difficult relationship with some Muslim nations due to persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang province. The recent decision by Thailand to repatriate nearly 100 Uighurs back to China was met with harsh criticism from the United Nations Refugee Agency and the international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch. Reporting suggests that Beijing may have pressured Bangkok, and Chinese persecution has strained relations with Turkey, which has both ethnic and religious ties to the Uighurs in Xinjiang.[xviii] In September of 2014, Ilham Tohti, an economics professor and member of the CCP, was sentenced to life in prison  by a Xinjiang court for “inciting separatism” and inviting “international opprobrium,” according to Georgetown University professor James A. Millward.[xix]

China’s continued crackdown on Internet access appears to be having a direct impact on business and foreign investment, according to surveys conducted by the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China and the American Chamber of Commerce. Respondents noted that foreign firms feel “less welcome,” poor air quality makes it harder for firms to recruit executives, and that recent regulatory enforcement campaigns “target and hinder foreign companies.”[xx]

These two examples – internal repression, censorship and the impact on international relations and foreign investment – expose vulnerabilities in how China chooses to stem threats, which come at a cost to China. Therefore, we have insight into how proposed information activities which parallel previous events might look and the anticipated costs. A Cyberspace/IO Offset targeting China’s information control systems can be expected to result in more extreme or diverse efforts to clamp down on information and economic exchange, perhaps ratcheting up internal dissent or imposing economic costs as foreign investment slows.


By targeting China’s information control system, the United States can directly attack China’s most critical vulnerabilities and weaken its center of gravity, the Chinese Communist Party. By placing these controls at risk, PRC leadership will come to believe that their hold on power and ability to maintain domestic harmony is in jeopardy. This will permit the United States to effectively and efficiently counter Chinese power during a critical window of the next ten to twenty years, when demographic and economic headwinds will cause China to enter a period of decline.

A whole of government approach is often advocated but exceedingly difficult to execute in our federal system. The strategy will require careful coordination and long-term vision, two capabilities that Western democracies are notoriously deficient in. Due to the nature of the strategy, lines of effort and operations can become quickly compartmentalized in classified channels, which will make coordination that much more difficult. Importantly, much like the policy of containment against the Soviets, it will require buy in from across the political spectrum, also no easy task.

Ultimately, a Cyberspace-IO Offset permits the United States to leverage its unique advantages, both technological and historically ideological, to attack China’s critical vulnerabilities asymmetrically. Despite the challenge this strategy poses, the U.S. has shown historic resiliency and proven adaptability in the past, and the present is no different.

LT Robert “Jake” Bebber USN is a Cryptologic Warfare Officer assigned to United States Cyber Command. His previous assignments have included serving as an Information Operations officer in Afghanistan, Submarine Direct Support Officer and the Fleet Information Warfare Officer for the U.S. Seventh Fleet. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy from the University of Central Florida. His writing has appeared in Proceedings, Parameters, Orbis and elsewhere. He lives in Millersville, Maryland and is supported by his wife, Dana and their two sons, Vincent and Zachary. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy or U.S. Cyber Command. He welcomes your comments at

[i] George K. Kostopoulos,  Cyberspace and Cybersecurity. (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2013).

[ii] Joint Publication 3-12 Cyberspace Operations defines the Physical Network Layer as “comprised of the geographic component and the physical network components. It is the medium where the data travel;” the Logical Network Layer as consisting of “those elements of the network that are related to one another in a way that is abstracted from the physical network, i.e., the form or relationships are not tied to an individual, specific path, or node;” and the Cyber-Persona Layer as “the people actually on the network. Cyber-personas may relate fairly directly to an actual person or entity, incorporating some biographical or corporate data, e-mail and IP address(es), Web pages, phone numbers, etc. However, one individual may have multiple cyber-persona, which may vary in the degree to which they are factually accurate. A single cyber-persona can have multiple users.”

[iii] Joint Chiefs of Staff. Joint Publication 3-12 (R): Cyberspace Operations. (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 2013).

[iv] Joint Chiefs of Staff. Joint Publication 3-12(R): Cyberspace Operations.

[v] Thomas Lum, Patricia Moloney Figliona, and Matthew C. Weed. China, Internet Freedom, and U.S. Policy.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Chen Weihua. “2.1 Million Chinese to Visit US This Year.” China Daily USA, May 23, 2014, accessed December 24, 2014.

[ix] Institute of International Education. “Top 25 Places of Origin of International Students, 2011/12-2012/13.” Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. 2013.

[x] P.W. Singer and Allen Friedman. “Cult of the Cyber Offensive.” Foreign Policy. January 15, 2014, accessed Demcember 24, 2014.

[xi] David Fieth. “Timothy Thomas: Why China Is Reading Your Email.” The Wall Street Journal. March 29, 2013, accessed September 24, 2015 .

[xii] Thomas Lum, Patricia Moloney Figliona, and Matthew C. Weed. China, Internet Freedom, and U.S. Policy.

[xiii] David Roberts. “How the U.S. Embassy Tweeted to Clear Beijing’s Air.” Wired, March 6, 2015, accessed April 2, 2016.

[xiv] Zheng Wang. In China, History is a Religion. The Diplomat, June 16, 2014, accessed April 2, 2016.

[xv] Dean Cheng, Converting the Potential to the Actual: Chinese Mobilization Policies and Planning, in The People’s Liberation Army and Contingency Planning in China, Ed by Andrew Scobell, Arthur S. Ding, Phillip C. Saunders and Scott W. Arnold (National Defense University Press: Washington DC, 2015). P. 130-131.

[xvi] Dean Cheng, Converting the Potential to the Actual. p 111.

[xvii] John Jamison. “China’s Internet Agency.” The Diplomat, December 23, 2014, accessed December 28, 2014.

[xviii] Oliver Holmes. “Thailand forcibly sends nearly 100 Uighur Muslims back to China.” The Guardian, July 9, 2015, accessed September 24, 2015..

[xix] James A. Millward.“China’s Fruitless Repression of the Uighurs.” The New York Times. September 28, 2014, accessed September 24, 2015..

[xx] Calum MacLeod. “Foreign firms in China gripe about Internet, pollution.” USA Today, February 12, 2015, accessed Septmeber 24, 2015.