Chinese Information Warfare: A Phantom Menace or Emerging Threat?

What is IW?

Since the concept of IW emerged in the mid-1990s as a topic of heated debate, its definition remains in a state of continual flux. Scholars, think tanks, and the U.S. Government have all struggled to provide an intellectual construct for the study of IW. Efforts to grapple with this “exotic” type of warfare continue today, and little consensus has yet emerged. The intellectual fever to come to grips with IW has also spread to China, resulting in similar degrees of disagreement over the meaning of IW. The conceptualization of IW in the Chinese context has been even more confused given that Beijing, by the nature of its opaqueness, has not published any official documentation of IW as a guide for national policy. There is no discernible taxonomy that can be meaningfully used to accurately depict Chinese IW. Only China’s open sources, many of which are of dubious quality or reliability, have offered some clues on Chinese thinking.

While not an exact scientific measure, a sampling of U.S. doctrinal writings on IW could provide a useful frame of reference and possibly some context for comparison between Chinese and American thinking. According to  a document on U.S. joint doctrine entitled Information Operations, IW is “actions taken to affect an adversary’s information and information systems while defending one’s own information and information systems.” The Pentagon’s Joint Vision 2020 adds that, “Information operations also include actions taken in a  noncombat or ambiguous situation to protect one’s own information and information systems as well as those taken to influence target information and information systems.”3 These vague definitions of IW clearly require further clarification.

At the heart of IW is information. Information guides decisionmaking in peacetime and war at the strategic (a decision to declare war), operational (a decision to move a division of forces forward for an attack), or tactical (a decision to order an aircraft to engage) levels. These decisions in turn trigger action. The purpose of IW is to affect the adversary’s decisionmaking process and associated actions to one’s own advantage. The outcome for the enemy can be wrong decisions, late decisions, or no decisions at all. This enables the attacker to control the opponent or, failing that, to prevent the adversary from carrying out a decision. To succeed in IW, one must achieve information superiority over the enemy. Joint Vision 2010 defined information superiority as “the capability to collect, process, and disseminate an uninterrupted flow of information, while exploiting or denying an adversary’s ability to do the same.”4 Information superiority requires both offensive and defensive components. In Joint Vision 2020, information superiority is simply understood as an “imbalance in one’s favor in the information domain.”5

There are six central pillars of IW in the current American lexicon:6

  • Physical Attack/Destruction: The use of kinetic force, such as cruise missiles, to inflict damage on enemy systems or personnel sufficient to render them unusable. This type of IW can be used defensively to prevent the adversary from using offensive IW.
  • Electronic Warfare (EW): The control of the electromagnetic spectrum to undermine the enemy’s electronic warfare capabilities through electromagnetic energy, directed energy, and antiradiation weapons.
  • Computer Network Attack (CNA): The use of computers and telecommunications equipment to disrupt, deny, degrade, and destroy enemy computers, computer networks, and the information being transmitted.
  • Military Deception: The manipulation, distortion, and falsification of information to mislead or deceive the adversary’s military commander, thereby forcing the enemy to act (or not act) to its own disadvantage.
  • Psychological Operations (PSYOPS): The use of communications (such as propaganda) and actions intended to mislead to influence the perceptions, motives, and emotions of the enemy.
  • Operations Security (OPSEC): Security measures that prevent the enemy from collecting or analyzing information that may be useful to it.

A recent study uses U.S. joint doctrine as a construct to highlight the differences between Chinese and American IW. Kate Farris argues that, “the U.S. tends to focus on the CNA aspect of IW, while the Chinese take a more broad perspective, emphasizing pillars such as PSYOP, Denial, and Deception.”7  While the author’s selection of Chinese literature persuasively supports this assessment, the current state of Chinese IW is simply too immature and not well enough understood to reach any definitive conclusion. As Farris herself admits, “the Chinese debate on IW is still evolving, there is some uncertainty remaining over how they will incorporate IW into their military doctrine and strategy.” 8 Clearly, more data and continued observation of Chinese developments are required. Her analysis nevertheless highlights the potential utility of comparative analysis for better understanding Chinese thinking on IW. Indeed, subsequent sections of this monograph show how closely Chinese interpretations dovetail with (if not copy) America’s ongoing examination of IW.