Chinese Information Warfare: A Phantom Menace or Emerging Threat?

Chinese discussions on IW have centered on the strategy of disrupting the command and control capabilities of the adversary. The literature often presumes that locating and then successfully attacking the enemy’s centers of gravity is achievable. Interestingly, this concept of crippling the opponent’s ability to act or gain initiative on the battlefield by targeting information systems parallels (if not parrots) the American notion of information dominance, which overlays traditional kinetic weaponry as a force multiplier. Another subtheme that emerges in the literature is the influence of Chinese strategic tradition. The recurrent notion of attacking the enemy’s strategy without actually engaging in combat reflects the indelible imprint of Sun Tzu’s  philosophy and demonstrates Chinese efforts to internalize IW within a familiar strategic framework. Interestingly, Western militaries, particularly the American armed forces, have also become enamored with Sun Tzu.36 Beyond the broad strategies that the Chinese have developed, strategists have also distilled very specific conclusions on how IW would be applied in the future.

Chinese Views on IW Capabilities

Despite the offensive nature of the IW strategies outlined above, the Chinese divide IW into two broad categories of offensive and defensive capabilities. In the offense, IW seeks to attack directly the enemy’s information systems. This includes the physical destruction and suppression of the enemy’s information operations, such as jamming, weakening, or shutting down the adversary’s command and control. Analysts recognize that as China becomes more dependent on IW in future conflicts, Chinese systems would likely be subject to attack as well. Indeed, Chinese observers have scrutinized the Kosovo conflict with great interest to distill lessons learned on potential defensive strategies. Strategists unanimously concur that enhancing resistance to interference and  heightening defense against physical attacks are critical requirements for Chinese IW.37 Defending one’s own platforms and ensuring the normal functioning of command and control have become equally important compared to the offense.

Chinese strategists agree that both the offensive and defensive elements of IW require a robust and effective command and control system. IW and any other type of warfare depend on command and control as the architecture and central nervous system. According to one author,

All activities of information operations are centering around command and control. Command and control cover all areas of information operations and work throughout the whole process of operation, affecting and regulating the overall situation. Any mistakes in command and control will seriously jeopardize an information operation. Therefore, in the study of information operations, we must pay close attention to command and control as the core.38

One major objective of C2 is to “obtain timely information, to understand the enemy and ourselves, and to achieve clarity about our situation with great determination.”39 As mentioned above, command and control warfare also seeks to destroy the enemy’s ability to acquire, transmit, process, and use information while protecting one’s own systems in order to achieve information superiority. For example, command and control systems would coordinate precision strikes and electronic warfare by locating, tracking, attacking, and assessing the damage to enemy targets.