The People’s Republic of China has not fought a war since 1979, but the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been a very close student of other peoples’ wars. They have carefully analyzed foreign, especially American, conflicts of the past several decades, and they have assessed the impact of information and communications technologies on overall national capabilities and on war-making. As a result, the Chinese have concluded that future wars—and international competition writ large–will turn on the ability to establish “information dominance.”
To this end, the Chinese see information extraction and information exploitation, both of which are central to establishing information dominance, as:
- Essential to modern warfare.
- Occurring in peacetime, in order to be useful in wartime.
- Going far beyond purely military-related information to realms including economic and political information.
The evolving Chinese view of the centrality of information is based, in part, on the reality that the modern global economy is more and more centered on the ability to gather, exploit and transmit information. Just as the Industrial Age centered on industrial output (gigawatts of electricity generated, tons of iron and bauxite ore smelted), the Information Age is built upon information and the technologies associated with it. At the turn of the last century, no nation could hope to be a major power without a major steel and chemical industry; today, national power is defined in terms of telecommunications capacity and connectivity.
This has implications, in turn, for military power. As warfare has expanded beyond the traditional land, sea and air domains to encompass both outer space and information space, the PLA realized that its forces would have to be able to fight jointly if they were to have any chance of victory.
This, in turn, required not simply the ability to operate within the same operational volume, but also the creation of common situational awareness based on shared information. For the PLA, this meant that future conflict would require not only a more high-technology force, but that it would especially have to incorporate technologies associated with information, including telecommunications, computing and space.
The result was the “informationization” of warfare, where information is applied to all aspects of warfare. This included not just weapons, but logistics, personnel selection and management, and decision-making. “Information dominance,” in this context, entails the ability to collect more information, manage it better, transmit it faster, and employ it more precisely and more accurately than the adversary.
In doing so, in the Chinese view, the side that enjoys information dominance can seize and retain the initiative, and force the adversary into a reactive mode. This exploits a key difference between mechanized warfare of the Industrial Age, and informationized warfare of the Information Age; the former focuses on physical destruction, whereas the latter is oriented towards collapsing the enemy’s will.
Establishing information dominance entails efforts that span the strategic to the tactical level. It is not simply a wartime requirement, but involves intelligence gathering throughout peacetime. Because of the rapid, decisive nature of “local wars under informationized conditions,” it is not possible to wait until the formal commencement of hostilities to begin preparations. At a minimum, identifying opposition capabilities and weaknesses must be undertaken in peacetime.
Nor can this be solely a military function. As the world has informationized, the Chinese economy has had to informationize; similarly, as warfare has informationized, the Chinese military has had to evolve to prepare to fight such conflicts. Although the PLA plays a major role, such preparations involve all the elements of the Chinese government, the broader society and the economy.
Because of the interconnected nature of modern information networks, and their extensive permeation, “information dominance” involves gaining access not only to the adversary’s military networks but to decision-makers and the broader population, while defending against their efforts to do the same. As important, since information itself can be used as a weapon (beyond the incorporation of viruses and malware) by influencing its consumers, it is essential for defense that information itself be monitored and information flow be tightly controlled.
Similarly, establishing information dominance involves a multi-pronged effort, addressing all aspects of information. It is necessary to target not only an adversary’s data, but also the systems involved in data collection and management, as well as the users and analysts of data. Similarly, it requires defending all three aspects of one’s own information architecture, i.e., data, systems and users.
The human element is especially important in informationized warfare. Chinese analysts note that the advent of more advanced weapons technologies did not necessarily lead to a change in the basic nature of war. Instead, the core of informationized warfare is the expanded range of abilities to influence and control an opponent’s judgment and will to fight.
The ability to influence people, in terms of their politics, their thinking, their morale and spirit, and their psychology can be as decisive and effective as the ability to interfere with databases or computer networks. The ability to influence an adversary through the proper application of suitable information is embodied in the Chinese concept of political warfare.
At the strategic level, informationized conflict means using information to influence perceptions of China and the United States. Is China engaging in aggression in the South China Sea, or is it defending its longstanding historic claims? The answer is based on one’s perceptions of China and China’s actions, and is the focus of Chinese political warfare efforts.
Political warfare for Beijing includes what it calls the “three warfares” of psychological warfare, public opinion warfare and legal warfare. These are the hardest forms of soft power, used to affect the thinking and psychology of the domestic Chinese audience, the adversary’s leadership and population, and the views of third parties.
Information warfare is the conduct of warfare through the application of information and information technology. The priorities are on “network warfare,” which is more than just cyber but all types of networks, and on electronic warfare, which goes beyond jamming radars and radios. Indeed, the Chinese see the two as fundamentally linked as “integrated network and electronic warfare.” This is supplemented by psychological warfare, whereby one influences the adversary’s military leadership by altering their interpretation of information, including their context and frame of reference, as well as undermining their will.
At the tactical level, the Chinese conduct information operations. This includes the combination of hard-kill and soft-kill techniques. Just as operational-level information warfare incorporates “integrated network-electronic warfare,” Chinese approaches to information operations include “integrated firepower-information attacks.”
PLA analysts consider physical infrastructure just as important as the computers and data. Some targets may be jammed, others hacked or infected with viruses, but in some cases, it might involve physical destruction of a server farm or a command-and-control center. This might involve special operations forces or it might involve precision-guided munitions.
So the Chinese see cyber operations as a subset of information operations. The focus is on information, not just cyber attacks. Denying information can therefore be accomplished through physical means as well as by manipulating bits and bytes.
This is reflected in Chinese military developments of the past several years, which are themselves the culmination of nearly a quarter century of thought regarding the shape and requirements of future warfare. The Chinese military reforms of 2015, including the creation of the PLA Strategic Support Force, highlight this. That unit includes China’s space, cyber and network-warfare forces. It is fair to argue that it is better described as China’s “information warfare” force.
Dean Cheng is the Senior Research Fellow for Chinese Political and Military Affairs at The Heritage Foundation and is the author of the volume Cyber Dragon: Inside China’s Information Warfare and Cyber Operations (Praeger Publishing, 2016). Prior to joining The Heritage
Foundation, he worked for the Center for Naval Analysis, SAIC, and the US Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment.