Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

China Sees Cyberwar as Reducing U.S. Advantage in Future Conflict

It’s one thing to read news concerning the latest report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Defense on China’s latest military activities. But with regard to China’s evolving stance and capabilities in the cyber arena, it’s especially interesting to read the original report.

I did just that this morning. (And you can, too, right here.) One section I found especially interesting is headlined “Role of Electronic Warfare in Future Conflict.” It details the Pentagon’s current assessment of how China’s People’s Liberation Army looks at action in the digital realm, and if nothing else, it’s certainly worth thinking about.

It’s pretty well understood that if the U.S. and China found themselves in a shooting war tomorrow, the U.S. would hold a significant military advantage. Its land forces, planes and ships and surveillance technologies are all more advanced. But much of that advantage comes from the ability to quickly share information on the battlefield, and to see everything that’s going on.

China, the Pentagon says, sees electronic warfare as a way to “reduce or eliminate” those technological advantages. How? China’s military doctrine calls for making its enemy blind, deaf and dumb by disrupting its ability to communicate and share information. “Effective EW is seen as a decisive aid during military operations and consequently the key to determining the outcome of war,” the Pentagon writes. “Potential Chinese adversaries, in particular the United States, are seen as ‘information dependent,'” the report says elsewhere.

If you’ve been paying attention to China’s numerous alleged intrusions against many, many computer systems and networks owned by U.S. government agencies and companies like Google and Intel that have disclosed attacks in the past, it’s not surprising. But when cast in the light of an overarching military philosophy, it’s more troubling.

Earlier this year, the world learned about the existence of a division of the People’s Liberation Army called Unit 61398. This unit is thought to be responsible for a series of cyber attacks against no fewer than 141 distinct companies or organizations since 2006.

The role of these attacks, the Pentagon says, is pretty straightforward: Spying and information in preparation for a day when a potential conflict might come. “China is using its computer network exploitation capability to support intelligence collection against the U.S. diplomatic, economic, and defense industrial base sectors that support U.S. national defense programs,” the report says. It could also give China’s leaders insight into the planning and capabilities of U.S. forces and into how leaders might respond, and that information could be “exploited during a crisis.”

China’s military thinkers, the report says, see electronic and information warfare as a “preemption weapon,” one that can be used to achieve “information dominance.” The ultimate aim: “Preclude the need for conventional military action.”

Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, who I’ve quoted before. But the quotation I have in mind bears repeating: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

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