China’s cyber capabilities are continuously evolving in parallel with the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) ongoing military reforms and modernization drives. As the PLA invests in the development of comprehensive cyber capabilities, the character of future conflicts in East Asia will increasingly reflect cyber-kinetic strategic interactions.
In a potential conflict with Taiwan, for example, the PLA may put a strategic premium on denying, disrupting, deceiving, or destroying Taiwan’s Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems. This would be followed by the deployment of the PLA’s conventional air wings, precision ballistic missile strikes, and sea power projection platforms – all within the first hours of the conflict.
A key target for the PLA, for example, would be the highly-advanced US-made ultra-high frequency (UHF) early warning radar system located on top of Leshan Mountain near the city of Hsinchu. Activated in February 2013, the radar is reportedly capable of detecting flying objects up to 5,000km away, and provide a six-minute warning in preparation for any surprise missile attack from the Chinese mainland. The radar essentially tracks nearly every sortie of the PLA Air Force flying across China’s opposite coastline.
The Leshan Mountain radar also has capabilities to electronically jam China’s major signal intelligence station located at Dongjing Shan. Moreover, the radar is likely linked with the US Air Force’s Space Command Defense Support Program (DSP) that operates reconnaissance satellites for the US Satellite Early Warning System. The system is reportedly capable of providing comprehensive surveillance of North Korean missile launches.
PLA concepts of ‘Network Swarming Warfare’
The PLA’s Strategic Support Forces (SSF) envisions such operations under the conceptual umbrella of integrated network electronic warfare (INEW), or wangdian yitizhan. In China’s strategic thoughts, INEW has a holistic representation that combines coordinated use of cyber operations, electronic warfare, space control, and kinetic strikes designed to create “blind spots” in an adversary’s C4ISR systems.
These concepts have also been reflected in the PLA’s recent writings on “network swarming warfare” that envisions future campaigns as “multi-directional maneuvering attacks” conducted in all domains simultaneously: ground, air, sea, space, and cyberspace.
While specific operational aspects and capabilities are clouded in secrecy, papers by the PLA’s semi-authoritative military sources such as the National Defense University indicate a simultaneous application of multiple force elements, including small and multi-functional operational forces, electronic warfare and counter-space forces, cyber units, and long-range precision firepower.
Space-based information asset control
An essential element for China’s cyber operations is the control of space-based information assets as a means of achieving “information dominance.” Specifically, PLA authors acknowledge that space dominance is essential for operating joint campaigns and for maintaining the initiative on the battlefield. Conversely, they view the denial of an adversary’s space systems as an essential component of cyber operations and a prerequisite for victory.
Interestingly, Chinese writings note that the overall space system encompasses not only satellites in orbit, but also terrestrial launch, mission control, tracking, and telemetry and control (TT&C) facilities, such as the Leshan Mountain radar in Taiwan.
Consequently, establishing space dominance must incorporate offensive and defensive measures covering the full range of targets – orbiting systems, ground-based systems, and data.
To this end, the PLA maintains a strong focus on counter-space capabilities, both kinetic and cyber. These include developing space launch facilities; space tracking, telemetry, and control facilities; orbital space combat capabilities and units; strategic missile forces; ground-based space defense forces, and space logistics and safeguarding capabilities and forces.
During peace time, PLA’s cyber units under the SSF are likely involved in comprehensive cyber reconnaissance – probing the computer networks of foreign government agencies as well as private companies.
These activities, which China denies, serve to identify weak points in the networks, understand how foreign leaders think, discover military communication patterns, and attain valuable technical information stored throughout global networks.
The scale, focus, and complexity of China’s cyber espionage over the past decade strongly suggest that these operations are state-sponsored or supported with access to financial, personnel, and analytic resources that far exceed what organized cybercriminal operations or multiple hacker groups operating independently could likely access consistently over a long duration.
Meanwhile, it is important to note that China is also relying on traditional human intelligence operations. According to Defense News, for example, China has been able to use its human intelligence network in Taiwan to gather information that would compromise the Leshan Mountain radar, as well as the island’s other strategic assets, including the Anyu-4 air defense network upgrade program, Po Sheng C4I upgrade program, Shuan-Ji Plan (electronic warfare technology project), Wan Chien (Ten Thousand Swords) joint standoff weapon, and the Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft.
East Asia’s Future Conflicts
The progressive complexity in strategic interactions and interdependencies between cyber, information, cognitive, and physical domains will likely challenge traditional kinetic uses of force in future conflicts in East Asia.
For example, in ensuring operational access in the East or South China Seas, the US military will have to ensure the security, reliability, and integrity of its mission-critical C4ISR systems as well as combat support and logistics systems that will become increasingly vulnerable to cyber threats as well as other emerging forms of electronic warfare, including threats from electromagnetic pulse and high-powered microwave weapons.
A sophisticated cyberattack on these systems, whether by the PLA or other potential adversary, would likely result in cascading effects with ramifications on the individual US services and their abilities to carry out operational missions.
As conflicts move into the cyber and information domains, the centers of gravity are also going to shift. The value and more importantly, the accuracy and reliability of strategic information relevant for the situational awareness and function of the nation state as a system will become even more important with the increased dependence on cyberspace.
Cyber-enabled conflicts will evolve parallel with technological changes – e.g. the introduction of the next generation of robots, artificial intelligence, and remotely controlled systems that will continue to alter the character of future warfare. Ultimately, however, both cyber and information domains – whether civil or military – may become simultaneously targets as well as weapons, including for the armed forces of China, Russia and the US.
Michael Raska is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.