Chinese Information Warfare: A Phantom Menace or Emerging Threat?

One of the enduring puzzles is how China might employ IW in the event of crisis involving the United States. An area that deserves close study is the apparent attraction among Chinese strategists to IW as a preemptive weapon. Chinese strategists uniformly recognize that they are likely to fight from a position of weakness. Hence when a conflict with a superior foe occurs, China must seek to achieve its political objectives while precluding an actual clash of arms that would likely result in defeat. The literature suggests strongly that IW capabilities might provide the “silver bullet” for such a scenario. In essence, these strategists are exploring IW as a tool to preempt conflict by attacking and crippling the enemy’s vital points (command and control systems) in order to reduce the adversary’s will to fight at the very outset of war. Again, this concept dovetails closely with Sun Tzu’s dictum of winning without fighting and Mao’s people’s war concept of overcoming the superior with inferior forces.

Mulvenon argues that the Chinese obsession with IW as a preemptive weapon pose the most worrisome and unpredictable policy challenge for the United States. He paints a stark scenario:

When one imagines scenarios in which the PLA would be concerned with preemptively striking U.S. forces during the deployment phase for early strategic victory, it is difficult to avoid the obvious conclusion that the author is discussing a Taiwan conflict. For the PLA, using IW against U.S. information systems to degrade or even delay a deployment of forces to Taiwan offers an attractive asymmetric strategy. American forces are highly information-dependent, and rely heavily on precisely coordinated logistics networks . . . If PLA information operators using PCs were able to hack or crash these systems, thereby delaying the arrival of a U.S. carrier battle group to the theater, while simultaneously carrying out a coordinated campaign of short-range ballistic missile attacks, “fifth column,” and IW attacks against Taiwanese critical infrastructure, then Taipei might be quickly brought to its knees and forced to capitulate to Beijing.72

Mulvenon notes that the incentives for employing such a strategy are three-fold. First, the proliferation of information technologies enables China to gain access to and develop such capabilities in a relatively short period of time, especially when compared to a full-fledged conventional buildup. Second, IW negates the need to use China’s precious few air and naval assets for an invasion campaign or massive attack against Taiwan, both of which would likely result in severe Chinese losses or failure for at least the next 10 years. Finally, IW, if sophisticated enough, could create adequate levels of plausible deniability. Mulvenon concludes that, “IW may currently offer the PLA some attractive asymmetric options, some of which may be decisive in narrowly circumscribed situations [emphasis added].”73

Despite its theoretical appeal, preemption as an IW strategy represents a double-edged sword. As Mulvenon suggests, under certain circumstances, IW could lead to decisive results. However, in the worst-case scenario, preemption could be highly destabilizing and escalatory. As Rattray argues, an escalatory response from the United States is possible should the damage to U.S. critical infrastructures prove to be extensive. 74 Is it likely then, for China to unleash an IW attack that could invite escalation in kind? If Beijing does intend to preclude U.S. intervention in a Taiwan crisis, it is entirely conceivable that China and the United States might find themselves in a dangerous tit-for-tat face off. To successfully preempt an opponent, the strike must be decisive and overwhelming. Once such powers of IW are unleashed in a preemptive attack, the ability to control and calibrate forces becomes extremely difficult. Indeed, de-escalation may not be an option once the Chinese order such an IW attack. Decisiveness of this kind requires almost near-perfect knowledge of the enemy and a very high degree of confidence in the ability to successfully destroy the adversary’s vital points (both extremely questionable propositions). Should such a high risk attack fail due to faulty information or prudent anticipation on the part of the adversary, the enemy may not be deterred and may respond with even greater force. Rather than the deterrent effect expected from IW (much as the Japanese planners of the surprise attack against Pearl Harbor had hoped), a reckless application of information operations could provoke massive retaliation.